Alan Cooper Reviews soundfestival 2017: Organ Day


Tuesday 7th November, 2017

On Tuesday 7th November, sound devoted a whole day to contemporary music for organ. This event was in three parts. At 1.10pm Christian Wilson of Brasenose College, Oxford, gave a recital of music in which works by three contemporary composers including Arvo Pärt were interspersed with three well known works for organ by J. S. Bach. Following this, at 2.30pm Christian Wilson was joined by Dr Roger Williams in a talk on the history of the organ, the King’s College Chapel Aubertin itself, and new developments in organ music, including advanced scoring with examples shown, through the 20 th and 21 st Centuries. At 6pm Dr Roger Williams gave his special SOUND recital which over the years has become a regular event, keenly anticipated by me at any rate. In his recital which also had a piece by Arvo Pärt, all the music was by contemporary composers, two of them world premieres specially composed for today’s concert.

Both performers had page turners doubling as stop changers for many of their pieces. Christian Wilson gave the stop changers lots of work to do. A television screen in front of the audience was of great help in letting us see exactly what was going on, not just the stop changes but which of the three keyboards were being used. Christian Wilson used stop changes and keyboard moves to create a full orchestral variety of sound blends. Even in Bach’s Dies sind die heil’gen zehn Gebot BWV 678, the second piece in the programme, the different strands of Bach’s counterpoint were made to seem even fuller and richer when coloured by detailed changes of timbre. 

Christian Wilson began his recital with Arvo Pärt’s Annum per Annum (1980). The work opened with a held chord in the right hand while the left hand danced out a rhythm. The first time this appeared it was concluded by switching off power to the organ so that the sounds simply melted away. The same theme was used to complete the work but this time it ended in a powerful crescendo. Throughout the other five movements, a five note motif with a quirky and infectious rhythm dominated the music with multiple changes in timbre giving full colour to the performance.

The second contemporary work was Laus Deo by Jonathan Harvey (1939 – 2012). Strident chords, clarion-like extemporisations and rhythmic intensity suggested influences of Messiaen and once again Christian Wilson exploited the full colour ranges of the Aubertin in a wonderfully exciting performance. With Bach’s Vater unser in Himmelreich BWV 682 rhythmic counterpoint was very much to the fore and in this setting of the Lord’s Prayer the music seemed unusually jaunty. Alasdair Nicolson (b. 1961) was inspired by the poetry of the great Gaelic poet Sorley Maclean for his piece The Ebb Variations. I sensed something of Arvo Pärt at a few points in this music but also the world of the toccata and somehow too the music of the piobaireachd which I found fascinating. Once again organ colour was special in this piece. It was a joint commission with New Paths Festival in Beverley and sound and it was premiered in April this year in Beverley Minster.

Christian Wilson concluded his recital with a bravura performance of Bach’s Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir BWV 686. All on the middle manual with no stop changes, it was an example of Bach’s noblest and richest contrapuntal writing. For the lecture and discussion, a small group of us were taken upstairs into the organ loft. Roger Williams began with the history of the organ going back to Babylonian times, then on to the Middle Ages and to the creation of the Aubertin organ and its French antecedents. We were given examples of some of its special sounds including the famous tierce en taille. Coming to the twentieth century, Roger explained how much English organ music was under the influence of composers like Vaughan Williams – some of it good, some not so good. We were then shown scores by some of the more experimental composers like György Ligeti for example as well as some of the University’s young composers whose music we had heard in past recitals. Roger explained how they permitted the performer a certain amount of freedom but within remarkably strict limits. Often they had no musical notes as such just squiggles and diagrams of certain kinds and often lots of words. I got the impression (and I am probably wrong) that such music would be fairly easy to write but quite fearsome to interpret and play. John McLeod’s Toccata however had lots of notes all carefully written out but still very modern and challenging to play.

Roger Williams began his early evening concert with another World Premiere, St Machar Recessional by Mike Merrill. It was a personal commission for this very recital. Merrill is or was on the staff of Aberdeen University Music. The splendid programme note on the piece describes it as a chordal progression which is repeated with many variations and continually returns in new guises. It was strong, richly scored, attractively tonal and above all exultant, celebratory, like music for some great occasion.

The second piece was by the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931). Entitled Hell und dunkel (Light and Darkness) it was published in 1976. Some of the audience thought this to be the most exciting work in the programme. It certainly had plenty to offer – strident long held cluster chords with fast toccata-like figurations in the right hand. Much of the music stark and angular coloured by multiple stop changes that kept Roger’s assistants very busy indeed. Most amazingly it ends with a kind of cadenza for pedals including chordal trills that had Roger’s knees going like the clappers on the television screen. What an amazing virtuoso performance.

Arvo Pärt’s Trivium was in three short movements light, transparent and attractive, the bass rhythm dominating the first two movements and then finally the whole sounding not unlike plainsong in the final movement – something of a relaxation after the fiery excitement of the Gubaidulina.

John de Simone is currently the Composer in Residence for sound. His piece entitled Shape of things to come was also receiving its World Premiere. It had elements of minimalism with a series of repeated motifs but the work had also a strong sense of linear development that proved wholly satisfying.

For me though, it was the final piece, Toccare Incandescent by the American composer Stephen Montague (b. 1943) that really took my fancy. Like the opening work, it also had a sense of occasion about it. I liked to think of the similarities between the two works but also their strong differences. It was a far longer work with so much contained within it. It was like a train ride through ever changing musical landscapes. Its different sections used so many of the Aubertin’s special sounds. There was one section that kept recurring, a little oompah of a rhythmic dance with an amazing blend of stops on the left hand. After the concert I tried to get Roger to tell me what was in those sound mixtures but rather like those chefs who have a secret spice blend, he was keeping it a secret. We will just have to call it Roger’s own special blend! There were moments of real virtuoso excitement in the piece too with Roger’s hands flying across the keyboard threatening a major collision which I am pleased to say never happened. It was another generous and exciting work with which to conclude the splendid organ day. Quite a few members of the audience remained behind to chat with Roger about the music he had played. That surely is what sound is all about, isn’t it?

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