Leighton’s complete organ works performed by Stephen Farr

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COMPOSERS: Leighton
LABELS: Resonus
ALBUM TITLE: Leighton
WORKS: Complete organ works
PERFORMER: Stephen Farr, John Butt (organ); Nicky Spence (tenor), Chloe Hanslip (violin)
CATALOGUE NO: RES 10178

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Stephen Farr’s Leighton odyssey is an ear-opener. ‘Complete organ works’ sells the set short. As well as the solo harpsichord Improvisations – a title best approached with caution given a composer so wedded to the personally liberating disciplines of counterpoint and variation form – there’s also a substantial Fantasia for violin and organ, and a 70th-birthday tribute, setting George Herbert, for Sir Peter Pears. Given Leighton’s background as a cathedral chorister, it’s perhaps surprising that he didn’t start producing organ works until his 30s. But when he did, the idea of pre-Evensong fingers ‘wandering idly over the noisy keys’ couldn’t be further from the truth. His is a gritty compositional style, supremely aware of the direction of travel, fastidiously crafted, and worthy to be set alongside the high watermarks of the 20th century French school.

The liner notes for this set, which includes two discs previously released as downloads, suggest Leighton was initially wary of an instrument he considered dogged by issues of clarity. Yet clarity is never in doubt here thanks to the Rieger organ in St Giles’s Cathedral Edinburgh and Birmingham Symphony Hall’s Klais, which, both superbly recorded, shoulder the lion’s share of the workload.

Most of all, though, it’s down to Farr’s unswerving authority, scrupulous phrasing and rhythmic flair – at once alert, incisive yet fluid. He lavishes as much care on lesser works such as the Festival Fanfare as on the tri-partite Et Resurrexit which follows, its long-term architecture moulded with flawless pacing and cumulative acuity. The concluding toccata of the Missa de Gloria, meanwhile, underlines Farr’s gutsy, full-blooded élan. A revelation.

Paul Riley

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Listen to an excerpt of this recording here.