Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Interesting if unorthodox Festival programme of music for organ and brass at St Mary of the Angels

By , 13/03/2018

New Zealand Festival 2018: Chamber Music Series

“Fields of Poppies”
Paul Rosoman (organ)
and Monarch Brass Collective: Mike Kirgan, Mark Carter, Barrett Hocking (trumpets), David Bremner, Matthew Allison, Shannon Pittaway (trombones), Andrew Jarvis (tuba), Lenny Sakofsky (percussion)

Music by Schubert, Stanford, Widor, J C Kerll, Giovanni Gabrieli, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Bach, Vierne

Church of St Mary of the Angels

Tuesday 13 March, 6 pm

Having attended the previous chamber music concert in St Mary of the Angels which seemed to have an audience of only about 60 or 70, I was rather astonished to find that what was a predominantly organ recital was a full house (or should that be una chiesa piena?).

I have been heard to express a certain weariness at the four-year-long obsession with remembering the horrors of World War I; and the prospect of further intensification in November and perhaps long after, is perhaps not looked forward to.

Anyway, there were interesting features here: a chance to hear Maxwell Fernie’s organ played again after the church’s restoration and strengthening; the combining of organ and orchestral brass instruments, including a composer like Gabrieli; and a couple of French organ works from around the turn of the 2oth century (Widor and Vierne) – as a unredeemed francophile, I am susceptible.

The military setting was actually a very successful feature, with the crackling of a side drum (Sakofsky?) preceding the trumpet’s sounding of The Last Post (Michael Kirgan?): slow and poignant.

It was followed by an arrangement for organ and brass instruments by David Dobson of Schubert’s nonet for wind instruments, Eine kleine Trauermusik, written when he was 16 (already No 79 in the Deutsch catalogue!). I didn’t know it, but in this arrangement it certainly made a splendid sound in the church.

Stanford and Widor
Then came what I felt a less successful, and much longer work, the second organ sonata (in G minor, op 151) by Charles Villiers Stanford (the habitual use of his first names suggests that he’s still unknown to most people). Written in 1917 and dedicated to Widor (who was 7 years Stanford’s senior) and to France; its three movements depicted aspects of the war (Rheims, a solemn march and Verdun). However, its length was hardly justified by its portentousness and lack of any real humane feeling. Use of La Marseillaise was a feature but that hardly rescued it from its repetitiveness and distinctly second rating. However, the performance was bold and served to display both the organ’s clarity and colours, and the splendid acoustics of the church.

It was naturally a nice idea to follow the Stanford sonata with a Widor piece, also written during the war and actually composed for organ and the brass instruments engaged here. It displayed some of the same characteristics as the Stanford and one could sense an almost coming together of the two composers’ styles, from which Widor might have been the more disadvantaged. In spite of his famous toccata, Widor was not really a composer of flamboyant, heroic music.

The 16th and 17th centuries
Though the Thirty Years War (1628-48) set the German-speaking lands and some of their neighbours back a century in terms of cultural development (compare what was going on in 17th century France and England, even taking account of the Civil War; and look for Book Week star AC Grayling’s The Age of Genius: the Seventeenth Century), it seemed to have inspired music.

During and after the war music depicting battles was not uncommon; the example most familiar to me is by J C Kerll’s contemporary, Biber. Here, in Kerll’s ‘Imperial Battle’, brass was again as important as the organ in a piece that was processional and triumphant rather than reflecting the horrors of war. Yet the organ was adroitly integrated in the imperious clamour, and there was enough suggestion of a somewhat neglected Bach predecessor to make one curious about other Kerll compositions.

Then the brass players disappeared from the organ loft and reappeared making their way to the sanctuary where they played the following three works – by Giovanni Gabrieli, Brahms and Mendelssohn.

One expects to find prominent brass offerings in the splendid Venetian music of the Gabrieli, written to exploit with voices, organ and brass, the splendid acoustic of St Mark’s, Venice. Monarch Brass Collective chose one of the numerous pieces for brass in the Sacrae Sympnoniae, and the players’ impact with the Exultavit cor meum in Domino (C 53), in the even finer acoustics of the post-restoration church was very impressive.

Nineteenth century Germany
Brahms’s Geistliches Lied, Op 30, is an early work, written in 1856 but not performed till 1865. The programme notes remark that it was composed for chorus and organ, and so it was surprising to find it performed by the brass, without organ as far as I could tell from my restricted view of the organ loft. (I also had a restricted view of the screen suspended over the sanctuary showing Rosoman’s hands and feet at the organ, as well as the brass players and roaming around the splendid vaulting and stained glass. It was a good initiative.)

The brass ensemble remained in front of the altar to perform Mendelssohn’s second organ sonata; here I confess, I was perhaps even more surprised and perhaps a little disappointed to hear a brass arrangement of one of Mendelssohn’s six organ sonatas instead of the real thing. Not that I have ever been especially enamoured of his organ works, but I’m always ready to be invited to reconsider: not this time though. I was not the only one to find the lack of specific information in the programme a little confusing; here there was no mention of its rearrangement for brass, or details of its movements which allowed applause after each break between movements.

The arrangement for entirely different instruments rather obliterated Mendelssohn’s fingerprints, causing one to wonder whether it was indeed, Mendelssohn.

A Bach Chorale Prelude
For the following Bach piece, the brass collective, accompanied by the rattle of side drum, retreated again to the organ loft where they joined with the organ in the Chorale Prelude ‘Aus tiefer Not’ which was drawn from his cantata of the same name, BWV 38; the former is considered a more interesting piece, indeed, one of the most admired of his chorale preludes. The addition of brass was not as alienating from one’s awareness of Bach’s genius as it had been with Mendelssohn, and it came off well.

Finale in France
The concert ended with a piece by Vierne, also with a connection with war. 1921 marked the centenary of Napoleon’s death and this was a commission for the commemorative service at Notre Dame Cathedral. It was very appropriate for this concert, as it returned to the character of Widor’s piece in employing the same instrumental forces and adopting a comparable triumphant, celebratory character. Its finale was particularly effecting: as the brass died away the organ took up a great concluding fugue, and brass rejoined with a certain un-Viernish triumphalism and grandeur.

Though I have had several minor criticisms of the programme booklet and of the musical arrangements, the concert broadly achieved its aims in attracting a big audience to interesting and worthwhile music that would have been unfamiliar to most. And that’s always a good thing.

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