This has been a good month for Judith Bingham; helping, no doubt, to sugar the pill of next year's 60th birthday (don't worry, Judith, I'm only two years behind you, and so I know we're both still young!). She had a BBC Proms première last Sunday week and now the release of this, the second disc from Naxos devoted to her music. She's certainly not an unfamiliar name to record collectors or concert-goers, but to date it is mostly through her choral music that she has become known; both this month's Proms piece and this Naxos disc are of her organ music.
So it helps to be able to introduce her music by describing it in terms those most likely to buy this disc will understand. The easy thing is to draw parallels with which they are familiar, but this is probably as pointless as describing every meat which is not beef, pork or lamb as "tasting like chicken". (The first time I ate crocodile – ironically in the company of the late Steve Irwin at his Australia Zoo in Queensland – I was asked to describe its taste. "Most people say it tastes like chicken", I was told; "No", I honestly responded, "it tastes like crocodile".) The fact is, though, it is very difficult to hear any organ music written in the last 100 years without finding parallels with the French masters – Messiaen, Dupré, Alain – simply because these French composers were so influential in writing for the organ that their models are just about impossible to ignore. So is there any value in suggesting that aspects of Judith Bingham's writing for the organ are reminiscent of them?
Judith Bingham's writing for the organ is certainly original; you could never listen to it and confuse it with someone else's. But it is not particularly distinctive; unlike, say, Mathias (with his dancing rhythmic rows of bare fifths) and Leighton (with his insistent chromatic steps full of seventh and second harmonies), she does not write in a style which has an immediately identifiable individuality about it. You would hear it and know who it was NOT, but you would not be able to say who it WAS. So, to that end, I feel it is incumbent on me to describe her musical language to the uninitiated. Just because it's organ music should not be excuse enough for buying the disc - although some will – nor should the fact that it reveals the latest re-fashioning of the Harrison and Harrison organ in St Alban's Abbey. Perhaps some might buy it simply to hear how good Tom Winpenny, a fairly new entrant on the British organ scene, is. My review will, of course, address these elements – but you will have to read my thoughts in the pages of Gramophone's Awards issue in October – but my main focus is to describe to potential purchasers what they might expect musically.