To my shame, I have never before today heard Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in a live concert – only in recordings and on the radio. However a CBSO concert this afternoon in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall rectified that in grand style. Conducted by Christopher König, the orchestra (my favourite, since teenage immersion in its Town Hall concerts under Louis Fremaux) was on top form and brought out the whole extraordinary musical and emotional depth of this glorious work. The concert opened with a delightfully poised, elegant performance of Mozart’s piano concerto No.27 in which the soloists was Paul Lewis, whose crystalline touch enchanted and delighted a large and enthusiastic audience. It’s such a thrill that a degree of normality has now returned to the concert hall – somehow it makes hearing such masterpieces all the more special.
One of the benefits of Anne’s and my birthdays being only two days apart (March 6th & 4th respectively) is that we can usually justify an excellent joint celebration – especially for ‘significant’ birthdays like this year’s. So off we sailed to Caen on March 1st, to stay with some old friends in their delightful old house near the city centre. Our time there was fuelled with stimulating company, liberal quantities of champagne, glorious food – and ‘British’ weather (well, you can’t have it all). Organs did not figure, though as we’d not visited the austere but beautiful Norman Abbaye aux Dames before, we did just that, hence the photograph. It was founded in 1062 by Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror, who built the larger Abbaye aux Hommes (1066 – yes, that year) half a mile away. The latter has a famous Cavaillé-Coll in the west gallery, whereas the former nuns’ church makes do now with a more modest Orgue de Chœur. Such a delight to travel abroad again after two years of being under restrictions.
Over the past fortnight I have visited and surveyed two interesting organs. All are in buildings of considerable beauty, perhaps little known to organists. I mention two here: All Saints, Basingstoke, and Beaulieu Abbey. All Saints, with its sturdy Hunter organ, was built in just two years during the first world war, and is a fine example of the work of Temple Moore; the sort of church which brings you to your knees when entering. Beaulieu Abbey church is most unusual in that it is the former refectory of Beaulieu Abbey, built in the thirteenth century. It retains the stone Reader’s Pulpit from which a monk would have read Scripture at meal times. Needless to say, there is nowhere sensible for an organ, so J. W. Walker contrived a compact instrument for an elegant freestanding case designed by Blomfield.
On January 11th I spent the day in the Sheffield City Archives looking at a treasure-trove of correspondence by the renowned organ expert Reginald Whitworth, who died in 1953. I have long enjoyed his books and articles on the organ – not least his splendidly clear drawings of organ mechanism – and was amazed to find several fat volumes of letters written to him by a vast range of organ-builders and organists from c.1918 up to his death. A return visit to the archives will be necessary, as I could work through only half the material in a day, but here are two letters which may be found of interest.
It’s been a good few years since I visited the ancient church of St Mary, Clifton – just outside Nottingham. On Saturday December 18th I had the pleasure of leading a choral workshop based on early a cappella music for Christmastide (Philips, Sweelinck, Händl, Clemens non Papa, Mouton, Byrd, et alia) in its nave. Pleasantly resonant, it boasts a fine west end organ (Marcussen, 1973) and a beautiful chancel, decorated by Bodley, glimpsed here in a photograph of the Crossing with crib in place, above which can be seen part of a typical decorated ceiling by the York architect George Pace.
This is proving the busiest Autumn for several years. Over the past week, three more trips: two to perform, one to observe. On Saturday November 13th I was in York, to deliver a talk on my recent organ project to the York and District Organists’ Association. It was much the same talk as I gave in Taunton a week ago, but greatly enhanced by being in a fine room in the new Music Department at Bootham’s School, which boasted an enormous screen.
The next day I was ‘opening’ a charming little 1877 Gray & Davison at Whatton – close to our Bingham home – along with the excellent Cranmer Singers and their conductor Deborah Davies. The tenor-C Swell was a handicap but the restoration had been done immaculately by Chris Hind and Lewis Paul.
On Wednesday this week I joined my friends in the Nottingham & District Society of Organists for part of their trip to Worksop. First stop was the impressive Norman Worksop Priory, with its early Peter Collins organ standing proudly in front of the east wall, in an extension to the Priory church created in the early 1970s. Though its action has had to be reworked over the years, its tone carries surprisingly well down the lengthy nave, despite the lofty wooden roof. Then we visited the workshops of Goetze & Gwynn to observe interesting restoration work in progress (including a fairground organ). I peeled off after that but the NDSO visited Worksop College in the afternoon, where I had been involved in the organ rebuild a number of years ago. Alas, this coming weekend’s two activities have had to be postponed as my back has decided to say ‘enough is enough’ for a while.
Taunton is an interesting town, well worthy of a visit. Two churches boast Father Willis organs, in one of which (St Mary Magdalene) I had the very great pleasure of giving an organ recital at 11.00am on Saturday 6th. The day also included a delicious lunch – and cream tea – with members of the Somerset Organists’ Association, who came to the recital and then attended my lecture in the afternoon, describing recent interesting organ projects. I shall give another version of the talk to the York Organists’ Association this coming Saturday afternoon.
A busy week last week, with visits to the wonderful and nearly complete new Nicholson at Radley College, a recital given at St Swithun’s Retford (Notts) on a rather good Cousans, and a recital given at St Mary’s, Platt (Kent) on an organ rebuilt by HNB to my design back in 1983 which has recently been renovated. Notable at both places was a large and enthusiastic audience – so pleased to be back for a live recital – and warm churches! Long may both continue – for instance at St Mary Magdalene, Taunton, where this coming Saturday I am giving an 11.00am recital and then a 2.30pm illustrated lecture (with more than 100 projected images) on some recent significant organ projects for which I have been the consultant. Hosted by the Somerset Organists’ Association and by the church, the events are open to all. Do come along if you’re in the area: a fine Father Willis organ with a new Tuba is always worth travelling to hear!
Tewkesbury Abbey has seen some wonderful events over the centuries, and is known for its fine liturgy and music, but it has never before hosted the live-streamed launch of a cathedral organist’s memoirs. Such an event took place in the evening of Tuesday 12th October, when Dr Roy Massey MBE was interviewed by Brian Kay (the perfect interviewer!) to launch “An Organist Remembers”, his autobiography, published by the RSCM this week. It has been my privilege to put this book together, taking various articles Roy has written over the years, augmented by much writing specially for the book, designing and laying it out and adding some 140 photos, most in colour and many from Roy’s comprehensive personal archive. It was an enjoyable task and I am pleased to say that Dr Massey is as delighted as I am by the outcome. Copies may be bought on line from the RSCM: I can promise you a good read!
It has been such a delight getting back into the swing of giving organ recitals. I love inaugural recitals on rebuilt organs – particularly if they have been projects on which I have advised – for one can demonstrate all the colours of the refreshed organ and send everyone away happy, convinced that their money has been well spent as the organ sounds so fine. The most recent took place last week – the first at St Margaret’s, Olton (Solihull) and the second at St John the Evangelist, Ranmoor (Sheffield). I’ve written booklets about both organs, which you’ll find here: https://paulhale.org/publications/books-booklets/. Talking to a smiling audience again has been a great joy. Two rehearsal photos accompany this news item. Two more recitals coming up in the last week of October, and then two in early November. Can’t wait to get stuck in.