Christopher Herrick and Leipzig singers at Lutheran Church

Lutheran Church of St Paul, King Street, Newtown 

1 Christopher Herrick (organ) in music by Buxtehude, Bach, Iain Farrington, Boccherini, Flor Peeters and Samuel Sebastian Wesley.

Friday 24 July 2009

2 Ensemble Nobiles six singers from the Tomaskirche Boys’ Choir in Leipzig. German liturgical and secular music 

Sunday 26 July 2009

Christopher Herrick is one of the world’s most distinguished organists. I spotted his name in an organ journal, listing his concerts on a New Zealand tour. There was one in Wellington and it was at the Lutheran Church of St Paul in Newtown. Where? I didn’t know it and I wondered what could induce a world-class organist to play at what I imagined to be a small suburban church.

However, knowing that an organist is much more interested in the character of an organ than in the popular perception of a venue, it seemed possible that here was an interesting organ which Herrick had discovered. 

Then I started hearing other things about the church. It has a fine piano which is being used for piano recital performances by Wellington piano teachers, and accordingly the church had come up as a possible venue for a piano recital series that’s being discussed.

Music has a strong place in the tradition of the Lutheran church: Luther himself, and then others such as the Bach dynasty; the present Pastor, Mark Whitfield, doubles as organist. The church previously had a small pipe organ, in an alcove above the sanctuary, but it was inadequate. Even as the church had almost signed a contract for a new instrument with an American builder, an interesting one came up for sale in a Dutch hospital. It was built in 1962 as a one manual organ with a permanently coupled pedal range and enlarged with a second manual a year later. When the sale was discussed the addition of an independent pedal department was proposed and a 16 foot pedal stop was installed.

Its opening recital took place in March 2008.

The recital began with five pieces by Buxtehude, arranged to form a sort of suite or at least a coherent sequence, alternating between two praeludiums and two chorale-based pieces around a central toccata. The first Praeludium in A minor (Bux153) offered both a splendid exhibition of the organ’s qualities and of the variety of compositional resources Buxtehude commanded and his ability to make singular shifts in tone and rhythm without losing a feeling of unity.

The organ with its two manuals and limited number of registrations created an ideal clarity and tonal distinction for the two chorale pieces, ‘Komm, heiliger Geist’ and ‘Nun lob mein Seel’ (Bux 199 and 213). The Toccata in D minor (Bux155) may well flourish in a performance on a larger, more powerful organ, but here its striking contrasts, now conspicuously involving virtuosic pedal intervention with a flamboyant flourish at the end.

The rest of the concert offered delightful variety: untroubled by authenticity strictures, Boccherini’s Minuet was beguiling, perhaps a little droll. The fact that a quirky set of pieces like Animal Parade by young English organist/composer Iain Farrington has been composed in recent years attests to the vigour of organ music and a world-wide following. Herrick played three of the twelve highly diverting pieces, including Barrel Organ Monkey that relished both the bravura of a Lefébure-Wély and the nostalgia of the street barrel organ.

Bach arrived at the beginning of the second half in the Trio Sonata No 4 in E minor; pedals busier than ever; with its origin in chamber music with the individual voices so sharply delineated, it was the perfect fit for the organ.

King Jesus has a Garden comprises five variations, from a set of Ten Chorale Preludes by Belgian composer Flor Peeters. Its style varied between serious virtuosity and light-hearted multi-key treatment of the theme, hands tumbling confusedly over each other in the third variation, and finally another pedal display.

The choice of Choral Song and Fugue by Samuel Sebastian Wesley seemed a less than dramatic way of ending the recital; it had some character but mainly of the inoffensive kind. His encore however, Festmusikk by Norwegian Mons Leidvin Takle made a suitably exciting finale.


2 On the following Sunday the church hosted a six-voice ensemble from the choir of St Thomas’s church in Leipzig – Bach’s church. The six young man, aged 18 – 19, have completed their last year as boarders at the famous school attached to the Tomaskirche and have all been singing in the choir for nine years. They formed their ensemble, Ensemble Nobiles, three years ago As well as gaining an enviable musical education have also acquired an education of the kind that has long disappeared from New Zealand schools, including the first foreign language from Year 5 and at least one other foreign language a couple of years later.

Their concert took the form of a mass with each section interspersed with a variety of other music – part songs, Renaissance polyphony, little motets and cantata movements, old and new, one by a composer/conductor they have worked with, Manfred Schlenker.

The mass was Schubert’s charmingly naïve Deutsche Messe. I’ve never heard it apart from a performance on CD with full male choir plus organ. This was a totally different experience, one voice to a part, more or less, and a cappella. The Zum Eigang, which opened the concert, was a hair-raising experience, so miraculously balanced, with voices sounding as one, the result of the nine years of listening to each other; and each successive section (eight in all) grounded the entire concert in the style that seemed absolutely native to them. They ranged from Palestrina, Schütz and Byrd through Bach to several little known composers of later periods. A Cantate Domino by one Berthold Hummel (a 20th century one) and three by Hugo Distler, also 20th century, offered variety, displayed textures that were unusual, or dwelt in the lower reaches of all the voices. One of the singers introduced the music, fluently, wittily (not easy to be genuinely funny in a foreign language) and appreciative of the church, the congregation and Pastor Mark Whitfield, who punctuated the concert by playing part of Jean Langlais’s Hommage à Frescobaldi and then Bach’s Fugue in D major.  

I, at least, will be watching musical activities at the church from now on.

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