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Stephen Farr - Bingham Everlasting Crown - International Record Review

01 April 2012
International Record Review
Marc Rochester

Judith Bingham's 32 minute solo organ work The Everlasting Crown was commissioned for last year's Proms, where it was given its world premiere on the Royal Albert Hall organ by Stephen Farr on July 17th. He has now recorded the work on the more sympathetic instrument of St Albans Abbey, and a pretty impressive achievement it is too on behalf not only of Bingham and Farr but also of the excellent engineering, recording and production departments of the pioneering down-load only Resonus label.

Bingham's work was inspired by the idea of ancient and precious stones being associated with specific monarchical figures. She wrote in her Proms note that the idea had come to her after reading 'a 19th-century American book called About Famous Precious Stones, by Adele E. Opren. A book of dubious scholarship, it nevertheless had intriguing stories about some of history's most famous gemstones', and she carried this further, as she writes in her note for this recording, to 'create an imaginary crown which contained six famous stones, each of which would represent a quality of monarchy, good or bad'.

After a movement which introduces 'The Crown' in its completed form, we have movements depicting the various stones in it: 'Atahualpa's Emerald' (represents the divinity of the god-king), 'La Pelegrina' (a pearl worn by Marie Louise d'Orléans, wife of Charles II of Spain), 'The Orlov Diamond' ('given to Catherine the Great by Count Orlov'), 'The Russian Spinel' ('the Russian Imperial crown gave the last tsar a literal and symbolic headache'), 'King Edwards Sapphire' ('in the English crown for a thousand years and was reputedly given to the Confessor by St John') and 'The Peacock Throne' which combines two stones, 'the Timur Ruby and the cursed Koh-i-Noor'. More than merely descriptive, the movements explore the symbolism and legendary attributes of the stones.

Bingham's detailed note gives some insight into her intentions in each of the movements. 'I wanted to present different eras of playing - "La Pelegrina" is only on two manuals, as if it were being played in a domestic setting. The opening and closing movements are very grand, however, and need a big space. And I wanted to give the piece an overall feel of a dance suite once the grandeur of the opening - the ouverture - is over. In retrospect I was not sure that these aspects of the work came across in the original live performance, but they certainly do here, the intimacy of 'La Pelegrina' and the profound calmness of 'King Edward's Sapphire' being particularly effective when set against the towering austerity of the opening movements. Farr's powerful rhythmic sense also projects the 'dance suite' character particularly vividly across the entire work.

Clearly The Everlasting Crown calls on the player to grasp what is, for an organist, an unusually grandiose architectural scheme, and in this Farr is utterly outstanding, tracing the music across the seven movements with a kind of inexorable inevitability which reinforces the overall unity of the work. The St Albans Abbey instrument offers a chance to experience the inner detail of the music at close quarters, and a great deal of subtle colour emerges. I particularly like the little passages of glitter lighting up 'The Orlov Diamond', while the decidedly Chinese qualities in the incessantly repeating figures in 'The Russian Spinal' (the stone presented to the Russian Tsar by the Chinese) combine to make this a work which reveals more and more with every listening. Given such an attractive package as Resonus has issued, repeated listening of this is an absolute pleasure.

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