Good Friday 29th March 2024

Symphony Hall Birmingham, St John Passion, Bach, performed by Ex Cathedra

As a teenager in the late 1960s / early 1970s I would attend Birmingham Town Hall every Good Friday, where the City Choir and the Choral Union, together with the CBSO, with Roy Massey at the mighty Willis organ, would alternate the St John and the St Matthew Passions.  These were performances on a massive scale, leavened by also attending the more stylish interpretations offered in St Philip’s Cathedral by the lithe Birmingham Bach Choir under Richard Butt, with Orchestra da Camera and Roy Massey at the organ.  Jeffrey Skidmore, a Birmingham lad one year older than me, also attended such performances and in 1969 founded Ex Cathedra to offer even more stylish interpretations than the Bach Choir.  An astonishing  fifty-five years later, the choir has long been a much-loved West Midlands institution, renowned for its imaginative programmes, outreach work, and the researches still being carried out by Jeffrey. Their St John on Good Friday celebrated the 300th anniversary of the work’s first performance, augmenting it with motets, readings and clever organ improvisations (by Rupert Jeffcoat).  All I have to say is that if J.S. Bach had heard this concert, he would have been utterly delighted, as was a large audience, by its beauty, drama and loving attention to detail.  A moving and truly memorable experience.

13th March 2024

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Anne and I attended a matinée performance of Ben and Imo, a play by Mark Ravenhill.  A tour de force for the two actors (Victoria Yeates and Samuel Barnett), the play tells of a turbulent year (1952-3) in which Imogen Holst arrives at Aldeburgh to ‘help’ Benjamin Britten write Gloriana, a full-scale opera commissioned for the Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.  Their developing relationship is complex, intense, turbulent and creative.  There is not a dull moment in this captivating and thought-provoking play, which I recommend most warmly to anyone reading this.

2nd March 2024

[The console of the Holywood organ]

St Philip & St James, Holywood, Northern Ireland

This was a happy day when Jonathan Scott gave a brilliant recital to a packed church on the fine Henry Groves & Son complete rebuilding of the well-known large 3-manual 1963 J.W. Walker organ. See the Scott Brothers YouTube channel for some concert items – notably the first movement of the Elgar Sonata. I have enjoyed being consultant for the project (see my history of the Holywood organ) and gave a demonstration recital the next day to a most appreciative audience.  The first photograph at the console (Walker, restored by Renatus) shows Edwin Gray (long-serving organist of the church), Jonathan Wallace (of Henry Groves), Jonathan Scott and yours truly. 

The second photograph is a good view from the console to the organ’s twin west end cases, with me rehearsing.

21st February 2024

[Rochdale Town Hall – Binns console]

I’ve been looking after the project for a partial restorarion of this stupendous Binns for a few years.  Nothing could be done in the Hall until the multi-million pound restoration of the building and its environs was complete, at which point David Wells Organ-builders returned the Great soundboard and pipes, along with the Trombone and its chests, following complete renovation after water penetration from a formerly leaky roof.  A second stage, for which funds will need to be raised, will see the rest of the organ restored in due course.  It has to be my favourite Binns, despite having been a Trustee of its bigger brother in Nottingham’s Albert Hall. It’s much more fiery than the Nottingham organ, yet still has the extraordinarily powerful and resonant 32ft Double Open Wood which is such a hall-shaking feature of both instruments.

16th February 2024

[Holywood parish church – Swell pipework]

I spent a happy day in Holywood (Belfast) today, checking over the all but complete Henry Groves & Son rebuild of the large 1963 J.W. Walker in the parish church.  Known for its splendid choir and many concerts, this large Victorian church has benefitted from a fine organ since 1872, its 1963 rebuild in twin cases at the west end being something of a landmark in organ-building in Northern Ireland.  Now remade with new chests, a new wind system, tonal rebalancing, new electrics and a refurbished console (both by Renatus), it’s all but ready for its opening recitals next month by the fabulous Jonathan Scott, followed the next day by yours truly.

12th February 2024

St Mary, Willingdon – organ from beneath

Today I surveyed an unusual organ with an elegant case.  St Mary’s Willingdon had a small organ by Hill (dated 1893) which was rebuilt with electric action and a detached console in the 1950s, the slender base of the case then, over the decades, being completely filled with additional Pedal and Great ranks.  I have never seen so many pipes – plus electro-pneumatic relays – in such a small space!  What to do with it – ah, that is the question.  Curiously, it all sounds rather fine down in the church, so some serious thought is required. All too easy and glib to say ‘scrap all the additions’: organ consultants are paid to be more imaginative than that.  There was a smile on my face as I left, recalling the wonderful mis-spelling on one of the stop keys: “Faggotta”!

27th January 2024

Paul talking at the Bloomsbury Organ Day, 27th January 2024

January has been a mercifully quiet month, ending with a most enjoyable Bloomsbury Organ Day at the Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, during which I gave an illustrated talk about The Organ Club and its well-supported September 2023 tour of the organs of Greater Birmingham.

Music room library

I’ve been able to catch up with jobs such as ‘remaindering’ some of the least-used academic music books in my library to the attic (there are Billy bookcases up there!), to make room for currently homeless and more useful replacement organ tomes.  My life-long passion for collecting books and booklets on the organ has resulted in some 1,400 of them on my shelves, plus many hundreds of specification leaflets and smaller booklets in folders in cupboards beneath the shelves.  The photograph herewith gives a good idea of the library side of my music room. The drawers contain organ CDs.  The unit was designed and made for me by Renatus of Bideford; I’ve been thrilled with it ever since it arrived seven years ago. There’s a library ladder, too, not in shot.

28th December 2023

St Clement Danes as people arrive for The Organ Club’s annual Organ Competition

December has been an extraordinary month, ending by judging the first day of the Organ Club Annual Organ Competition in St Clement Danes.  The organ is unchanged – Ralph Downes and H&H in RFH mode – and pretty fine it remains.

Ruth Massey Tribute – front cover

Just a few days before, on Thursday 21st, it had been my privilege to give the Tribute which Dr Roy Massey had composed (with additions by David Briggs and myself) at the funeral of Roy’s beloved wife, Ruth, in Hereford Cathedral.  It was a truly beautiful service, with inspirational singing from the cathedral choir conducted by Geraint Bowen and some stirring congregational singing, led in no uncertain way by Peter Dyke at the famous Father Willis.

Morgan rehearsing singing the Torah

During the month there has been my usual organ consulting work but our most important family event was the ceremony on 2nd December in the Manchester Reformed Synagogue, at which our son Morgan (who is director of music there) was taken into the Jewish faith. The photograph shows him rehearsing singing the Torah at that service.  Quite a day.

30th November 2023

St Edward’s, Roath – the organ from nave

It’s been another month of interesting organ surveys / reports, interspersed by giving a recital and attending some wonderful Hallé, CBSO and Opera North events, including this evening’s CBSO’s worthy tribute to Simon Halsey’s outstanding 40 years as director of the CBSO choruses.  

At the start of November I found myself in Wales, surveying the 1923 Charles Gill instrument in St Edward’s Church, Roath (Cardiff).  Spread over two bays on the south side of the Chancel, it is unusual in that the first bay contains only the console and the Pedal Bourdon, elevated where the Great might normally be.  The Great and Swell are in the second bay, with a striking front of 16ft Pedal Violones. The 1996 Choir Organ – uniquely in my experience – is entirely derived from two extended Swell ranks. The organ doesn’t work very well at the moment, but would restore very satisfactorily. St Edward’s is a musical church and the organ is very much a central element of their liturgy and concert-making, I was glad to be told.

All Saints, Broseley – the Walker organ seen from the nave floor

The following week included at meeting at All Saints, Broseley, in the lovely Shropshire countryside, where a remarkable early 19th century J.W. Walker organ sits proudly on the west gallery for which it was designed.  It has had a sad life (the tallest front pipes have been temporarily removed as one fell out) but it is very good to report that the church is determined to do something about it.

St Philip’s, Earl’s Court Road, organ case and console

A few days later I visited St Philip’s, Earl’s Court Road, London, to inspect and report on a highly successful ‘transplant’ of an instrument of similar vintage. This is an 1848 Gray & Davison, augmented in 1901 by Hele, who added a Choir Organ (all on tracker action).  Made for St Peter’s Whitechapel, and redundant from the late 1980s, it was restored by Peter Collins and installed in St Philip’s under the direction of the late Stephen Bicknell, during 2003.  Here is an organ which looks beautiful with its gorgeously painted front pipes, and sounds magnificent in a fairly generous acoustic.  Something of a lack of maintenance since Covid has led to some areas of concern, though my inspection showed that they can readily be rectified, and, with a new blower, the organ will be fair set for many more decades of marvellous music making. I hope it becomes better known.  Its Mander-rebuilt predecessor, incidentally (designed by Francis Routh), was exported to Poland.

All Saints, Woodham – the organ from the south side of the chancel

This past week has seen me at All Saints, Woodham (near Woking), inspecting one of those perfect small 3-manual Harrison & Harrison organs from the 1920s/30s.  Several are found in Public School chapels (such as Repton) and many more in churches up and down the land.  Quite a few still work on their original tubular-pneumatic actions and with their original bellows leather.  Here, H&H had electrified the actions in 1991 but otherwise the organ is a superbly-voiced untouched specimen, needing an overhaul but not much else.  It was a joy to find it, and to learn that it is treasured by the church.

23rd October 2023

Lancing College – the 1986 Walker in its David Graebe case

In recent weeks I’ve been working on surveying and reporting on numerous organs, as usual.  What is less usual, though, is that three of them are what one might call ‘modern’ organs, in other words, instruments built over the past few decades, two with tracker action, inbuilt wind regulators, comprehensive piston systems and an eclectic tonal scheme based on complete flue and reed choruses plus historically informed ‘colour’ stops.  All are still in fine working order, but are due for cleaning and other work.  One finds itself in a different position from the others, as the church in which it sits is to be replaced by a smaller building.

Lancing College – the beater from one of the 32ft diaphone pipes

The first I visited was Lancing College, and an organ whose opening recital I remember attending in 1986.  The architecture of the chapel, the Stephen Dykes-Bower rose window and the David Graebe organ case never fail to inspire, even though the dry acoustic always comes as a disappointing shock.  The bottom octave of the 32ft Double Open Diapason uses diaphonic pipes (more often found in cinema organs and in the larger instruments of John Compton).  I thought a photograph of one of the beaters might be of interest.

The 1973 Hradetzky organ in the Royal Northern College of Music

I was hugely impressed when playing and surveying the splendid 1973 Hradetzky organ in the Royal Northern College of Music – arguably the finest large neo-classical instrument in any UK educational institution.  Although the RNCM no longer has an organ department, it is very proud of its Concert Hall organ and is taking my advice over its restoration and the improvement of safe access for tuning and maintenance.

The console of the RNCM Hradetzky

Notice that as the manual keyboards are closely spaced, there is insufficient room for engraved pistons – quite a challenge to improve.

The 1970 Hill, Norman & Beard organ in Carrs Lane Church, Birmingham

This incredibly effective ‘multum in parvo’ 1970 Hill, Norman & Beard organ in Carrs Lane Church, Birmingham has pleased all who hear or play it for over fifty years.  One of John Norman’s cleverest and most successful small neo-classical designs, using direct-electric soundboards and with much of the pipework drawn from the previous building’s high-romantic Norman & Beard, this organ really punches above its weight.  The 1969 building is going to be replaced with a somewhat smaller one, so the challenge is to come up with a way to integrate the 1970 organ in the new building.  I’m open to suggestions!