Hull City Hall has a gigantic organ, built by Forster & Andrews, rebuilt after war damage by the John Compton Organ Company, with an overhaul and console modernisation by Rushworth & Dreaper. It was my privilege to perform there on 14th September – my fifth appearance there over the years. What made it special and poignant was the timing – only a few days after the death of Her Majesty the Queen. I changed my programme to include Solemn Melody, Nimrod and The Angel’s Farewell from Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. This latter piece seemed to take on a special intensity as I played it as slowly and reverently as I dared, letting the beautiful softer colours of the organ fold one into another and breathe out into the spacious acoustic. There was complete hush at the end, applause not beginning for quite a while. Afterwards, members of the audience told me how much it had affected them. What a privilege we musicians have, that in our music making we can reach so deeply into the hearts of listeners.
The annual Diocesan Organ Advisers’ Residential Conference is always an enjoyable event with which to end the summer holidays, falling as it does on the week of the August Bank Holiday. After two years in abeyance, the conference this year was particularly memorable, being York based, and centred on the two significant recent organ projects there – the Minster and St Lawrence church. Andrew Caskie (of Nicholson & Co) gave a fine presentation (including sound files) about his firm’s scrupulous restoration of the Denman organ they moved there from St Mary le Belfrey, whilst Andrew Scott (starting that very day as Managing Director of Harrison & Harrison) held us fascinated by his account of the Herculean H&H rebuild in York Minster. A visit to St Lawrence was frustrated by last minute problems with the church, but our evening visit to the Minster will long remain in the minds and ears of all DOAs present. Dr William McVicker spoke about the British neo-classical organ movement in the Lyons Concert Hall at York University, also playing the ground-breaking Grant, Degens and Bradbeer there, and we also had case studies of the organs at St Helen and St Denys. The York DOA, Dr Maximillian Elliott, gave three fascinating talks about the organ-builders of York, based on his PhD thesis; hearty thanks are owed to him and to Conference Secretary David Cain for all the hard work it took to pull this conference together. Portsmouth next year – St Mary’s Portsea will be a great attraction for us there.
Returned a couple of weeks ago from a blissful fortnight cruising on the Rhine and Moselle. Took in churches, art galleries, castles and museums along the way from Amsterdam to Basel, including visiting Arnhem, Baden-Baden, Bernkastel, Colmar, Cologne, Heidelberg, Koblenz, Rudesheim, Speyer and more. No ordinary trip for us, as it was our 70th birthday celebratory ‘treat’ – followed on 8th July by Acis & Galatea at Nevill Holt Opera, and then on 14th July by Alcina at Glyndebourne, where our old and very good friends, Jeff and Alison Sutherland-Kay joined us for a glorious couple of days. Roll on our 75th, I say!
The last three days have been a most welcome return visit to Christchurch, Dorset, with its beautiful Priory and famous Willis / Nicholson organ. I’ve always enjoyed playing it, especially so since the Solo Organ (planned by my good friend Geoffrey Morgan, now Emeritus Priory Organist) was added. My recital celebrated several special people with anniversaries in 2022 (HM the Queen, César Franck, Ralph Vaughan Williams) and also brought to mind two who have recently died – Francis Jackson and Simon Preston. All went well and Anne and I enjoyed a stroll in glorious sunshine around the marina.
It’s been a busy few days since playing at Boston on Monday last week. First was a lunchtime recital at Retford last Thursday, then Saturday was spent in Guildford as President of the Organ Club, enjoying our cathedral and church visits. Off to the Isle of Wight after the weekend, to prepare a talk and demonstration programme (Jongen, Vierne, Franck & Hakim) on the very beautiful restored Mutin Cavaillé-Coll at Quarr Abbey. And then, today, I played the piano in a song recital with baritone Stephen Cooper at Southwell Minster. Dichterliebe was the centrepiece, preluded by songs by Quilter, Finzi and Southwell’s own Guy Turner. A real delight sitting again at the Bechstein grand in the Minster’s nave: a venerable piano, indeed, but perfect for song accompaniment. Next week it’s off on Wednesday to give a 12.30pm recital on Thursday June 2nd at Christchurch Priory. I always enjoy that organ, having first heard it as an organ-mad teenager, 54 years ago.
Today I gave a lunchtime recital on an organ, the quality of which proved a very pleasant surprise. Centenary Methodist Church in Boston (Lincs) has the finest Cousans of Lincoln organ I have ever played. It dates from 1913 and was rebuilt very successfully by Bishop & Son in 2000, with the addition of a Great Mixture and Pedal Trombone. Beautifully voiced yet really powerful (rather like a big Binns) – one can readily imagine it leading 1,000 Methodists in full song – its heavy-pressure reeds are superbly voiced and added a real thrill to the louder works in my programme. Such limpidly beautiful flutes, too. I look forward with relish to a return visit to this grand building and its splendid organ.
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.