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Choral concert to celebrate new digital organ at Cathedral of Saint Paul

By , 13/10/2018

Organ Festival: Choral anthems 

Choirs and Choristers of Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul, Choir of the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Sacred Heart (Directors Michael Stewart and Michael Fletcher, organists Richard Apperley and Michael Stewart)

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Saturday, 13 August 2018, 7 pm

With the organ moved to the side, the rather small audience had full view of the choirs in their red cassocks.  In his introduction, Michael Stewart referred to ‘choral blockbusters’; we had a few of them!  First was Handel’s famous coronation anthem ‘Zadok the Priest’.  It was sung with the usual robust cheerfulness, as was the next anthem, Parry’s ‘I was glad’.  Richard Apperley accompanied this in fine style, giving a ringing fanfare at the beginning.  The effect when the choir came in was thrilling.

Again (cf Friday night’s organ recital) I did not hear the clarity from this digital organ that would have been present in the pipe organ that was damaged in the November 2016 Kaikoura earthquake.  In the quiet parts, Apperley used the Choir manual, and throughout both choir and organ had a commendable range of dynamics.  The choir moved to several different positions for the different items; throughout, the singing was good.  The sound from the two choirs was unified in singing this music, which is tricky in places.  It is one of Parry’s most effective compositions, and not as bombastic as some of his utterances; rather it has a positive mood.

Before his solo item, Michael Stewart remarked that the organ was very comfortable to play.  He played ‘Fête’ by Jean Langlais (French composer for the organ again), an appropriate choice for initiating a new organ.  In festive style, we were caught up in a whirligig of excitement.  Especially in the slower sections, both Solo (right hand) and Choir (left hand) organs were used.  The final passages were jubilant, with plenty of foot-work.

Now it was the turn of the children who make up the Cathedral Choristers.  First, they sang a piece by Sir John (alias Johnny) Dankworth: ‘Light of the World”.  This was beautifully sung.  Next was ‘Look at the world’, words and music both, by the prolific British choral composer John Rutter.  This was a more difficult sing, but well performed.  Both items were sung in unison, accompanied by Richard Apperley.   The choristers were joined by the Cathedral choir to perform Jonatham Dove’s ‘Gloria’ from his Missa Brevis.  This British composer’s bright and jazzy piece incorporated a rapid organ accompaniment and a grand ending.

Gerald Finzi, another Brit. despite his surname, wrote charming, lyrical music. The combined three choirs sang his anthem ‘Lo, the full, final sacrifice’, with words by the mystical poet Richard Crashaw, who flourished in the early seventeenth century.  The performance was notable for the very fine men’s voices.  Not to demean the women, who sang extremely well, but it is often the men who are the weaker parts of a choir.

It was good to have the words printed in the programme, because it was not always easy to pick them up in this resonant building.  The music was very varied; some pensive, some jubilant.  Likewise the organ accompaniment – very dramatic.  The piece ended in a calm, peaceful ‘Amen’.

After the interval came an organ solo from Richard Apperley.  In his introductory remarks, the organist said that his improvisation upon this piece was the final music at the last service in the Cathedral before the earthquake – therefore the very last on the pipe organ.  He explained that the music built to cataclysmic effects, not inappropriately.  It was not clear if today’s performance included improvisation.

The piece was ‘Evocation II’ by Thierry Escaich, another French organist and composer, this time, contemporary. A repeated pedal note and staccato chords above gave a sense of foreboding as did the alternation between manuals, and gradual build-up of volume.  It ended in a ‘Wow!’ moment.

Michael Fletcher from Sacred Heart Cathedral now conducted the two adult choirs in Edward Bairstow’s ‘Blessed city, heavenly Salem’, with Michael Stewart at the organ.  The composer’s dates (1874-1946) put him between Parry and Rutter.  A lyrical  piece, it was in a style distinct from both his predecessor and his successor.  The music changed moods to suit the words.  The choirs not only sang accurately, they exhibited a splendid soaring tone.  The organ also went from ff to ppp.  A soprano solo in the last verse, with sotto voce accompaniment from choir and organ, was most effective; the anthem had a beautiful, subtle ending.

Zoltán Kodály was the only non-English composer represented.  His quite substantial choral and organ work, ‘Laudes Organi’ simply means ‘In praise of organs’.  It was based on a medieval text, and was written in 1966, a year before the composer died.  The organ as an instrument goes back to much more ancient times than the medieval; the Romans had small organs.

The Latin text was translated in the programme.  The second verse consists of instruction to the musician who will play the instrument.  The organist is instructed not to stand on the bellows, but to practice hard.  The choirs were preceded by a long, varied organ introduction.

The choral music not only featured very effective part-writing, it was illustrative of the words, notably at the beginning of the second verse: ‘Musician! Be a soldier; train yourself…’  Before the last verse (of four) there was a gorgeous organ interlude.  A jubilant organ postlude followed by a lovely polyphonic ‘Amen’, and final grand organ chords ended the work.  This was very fine singing and organ-playing indeed.

Like much of the composer’s music, the tonalities ran through a bunch of keys, or rather, made use of Hungarian modes, not exclusively those used in northern and western European music.  This made the music striking, significant, even magical in places; an admirable composition.

The last item of the evening was Vaughan Williams’s setting of the canticle ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’, words by the great metaphysical poet and cleric George Herbert.  After a great build-up from the organ, the choirs came in, in full voice for this well-known and dramatic setting.  Gymnastics were required from the organist, especially on the pedals.  Like the previous item, it was directed by Michael Stewart, with Richard Apperley at the organ.  Great refinement was evident in the quiet passages, before the piece’s upbeat ending.

Thus ended a memorable concert, aptly celebrating the new organ.
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