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Youth and experience: organ-playing at St John’s, Willis St.

By , 28/09/2014

Organ Recital at St. John’s Church

Bach: Toccata in D minor BWV 565
Couperin: Selections from one of his Masses
Franck: Chorale no.3, in A minor
Moritz Deutsch: nos. 9-12 from Twelve Preludes on Old Synagogue Melodies
Mozart: Adagio and Allegro for a Mechanical Clock, K.594 (arr. D. Halliday)
Bach: Prelude and Fugue in B minor BWV 544

Chelsea Whitfield and Dianne Halliday (organists)

St. John’s Church, Willis St., Wellington

Sunday 28 September 2014

It was interesting to be treated to a recital by two female organists, one a young student, the other long-experienced and highly expert.  However, the latter is currently a student too, working towards a doctorate (Doctor of Musical Arts) at Victoria University.

In St. John’s Church, with its fine wooden architecture, both external and internal, sits a splendid organ which needs some money spent on it to keep it in good playing order.  The series of recitals is one of the ways in which  the church is trying to meet that need.  It is a Lewis organ: Lewis and Company was an important firm of organ builders founded by Thomas Christopher Lewis (1833-1915), one of the leading English organ builders of late 19th century.

The organ, perhaps demonstrating its need of some restoration work, was a little out of tune in places on Sunday.

Chelsea Whitfield is an organ student at the New Zealand School of Music, but began learning the organ at 15.  She played first the well-known Bach Toccata in D minor.  It was probably nerves that accounted for quite a number of ‘fluffs’ in this piece – playing something so well-known compounds the difficulty, and also playing an instrument with which she would not be so familiar (she plays mainly at St. Paul’s Cathedral).  Of course, every organ is different in ways far more profound than is true of any other instrument, and it can take time to get to know a new one.  She chose a very suitable registration, nevertheless.

François Couperin’s Pièces d’orgue consistantes en deux messes (Pieces for Organ Consisting of Two Masses), were written around 1689–1690 when the composer was 21.  The pieces chosen from the first Mass, written for parish churches (many of which have splendid organs, of which I have recently had first-hand experience) gave variety of tempi, mood, and registrations.  There was a little blurring of notes on the flutes early on, i.e. they were not cleanly fingered.  But this was a rare aberration in Chelsea’s performance of the attractive music.  It was good to hear the different colours of the organ, as described in the titles of the pieces: ‘Recit de Chromhorne’, ‘Dialogue sur Le Trompette du G. C. [Grand Choir?] et sur la Montre’, the latter being the French name for Diapason.

Chelsea seemed very at home in this repertoire, and also in the Franck Chorale that followed.  This composer is not my favourite, but the Chorale was a brilliant piece well played – an exciting and highly competent performance.  The gradual build-up of volume and the selection of bright-sounding stops kept the work out of the mire into which Franck’s Chorales can fall.  There was plenty of contrast, and many tricky passages and turns were well mastered.  It was a fine rendition.

Dianne Halliday’s first pieces were something new to me, and I suspect to the rest of the audience too.  As I discovered in France, and as Dianne described, synagogues in some European countries have had organs for a long time, and music was written specifically for them.  Moritz Deutsch lived from 1818 to 1892, in Germany.  The first two of the pieces was written for the festival of Rosh Hashanah, and the next two for Yom Kippur, both festivals taking places around this time of year, as Dianne explained (in a voice projected so as to be easily heard, despite not using a microphone).

The first was rather ‘square’, with an improvisational feel to it; the second prelude brighter and without that improvisational character.  No.11 was solid, rather like a church chorale, but with some interesting chord progressions.  Nos.11 and 12 both began in the bass, on pedals.  No.12 was very bright, with contrasts.

Dianne’s arrangement of Mozart’s piece for an even more mechanical instrument than the pipe organ (in reality a minute pipe organ mechanically operated) had its delights.  The charming adagio was followed by a fast allegro with lots of trills.  The use of a 2-foot stop perhaps equated to the high tones of the tiny pipes of the original, and made for a brilliant, almost bird-like tonal quality.  The last section was quiet on flutes, and without the bright top.

Playing Bach was a great way to end the recital.  What ample interest Bach built into his organ music!  In his company both Franck and Mozart seem dull (no reflection on the arranger of the latter’s piece!)  Bach’s progressions, counterpoint and cadences promote a mood of certainty and cheerfulness – yes, even in a work written in a minor key.  The complexities of the fugue held no fears for Dianne Halliday’s capable technique.  Some of the harmonic modulations would be astonishing even if Franck had written them.

While organ recitals never attract a large audience (except the free ones that were held in Wellington Town Hall, of happy memory), there was a respectable number present to take in the diversity and interest of the programme and its performers.

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