Bach organ recital from Mews at St Mary of the Angels

Lobet den Herrn:  Winter organ series at St Mary of the Angels: Douglas Mews

Bach: Partita on ‘Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig’, BWV 768; Sonata No 2 in C minor, BWV
526; Prelude and Fugue in E flat (St Anne) BWV 552

Church of St Mary of the Angels, Sunday 23 August 2009

This was the second in the series of three recitals on the Maxwell Fernie organ at St Mary of the Angels. The first was by the, shall we say, organiste titulaire of St Mary’s, Donald Nicolson. This one was by the City organist and keyboard specialist at the New Zealand School of Music, Douglas Mews. After the concert he talked in the organ loft to those interested, about the music and the organ. It was interesting to hear his comments, shorn of the usual breathless veneration of Fernie’s handiwork (to which I have subscribed), noting some of the quirks and difficulties to be encountered with the instrument’s registrations.

However, here was a fine concert of some of Bach’s great organ works, culminating in the
bold and sanguine St Anne Prelude and Fugue (though, as he noted, the tune was merely a bit like the hymn known to Anglicans as St Anne’s or ‘O God our help in ages past’; Bach would not have known it). It is thought that the two parts were probably not composed to be linked in the way they eventually came to be published.

The rest of the programme was not of particularly familiar music.

The Partita BWV 768 is a set of eleven variations on the chorale, ‘Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig’, of delightful variety, starting with its exposition that involved sprightly duets between pedals and manuals. Each variation led to quicker, grander or more elaborate treatment and Mews exploited some of the more entertaining stops discreetly on the way, including nasal reed stops in the third variation. It ended with a commanding summation of the piece’s essential spirit.

The set of six organ sonatas, BWV 825 – 830 are less familiar than the sets of sonatas, suites and partitas for cello, violin and other keyboards. They were probably written in Bach’s first years at Leipzig – the mid 1720s and to some extent made use of recycled music; they may have been written as studies for his oldest son, Wilhelm Friedmann. They are not easy, a compilation of the technical problems that a gifted student would want to master. However, their tone is generally genial, tuneful and not burdened with heavy textures, and the Fernie organ proved an admirable instrument in the hands of Mews.

The St Anne Prelude and Fugue was the most imposing of the three pieces: the prelude enjoyed certain droll figures, such as the planting of single heavy treads on the pedals, dotted rhythms. The fugue may not be a heavyweight but it is rich in imaginative devices and developments that Mews made even more interesting with his spirited, rhythmic playing and the expert, sometimes droll choice of stops.

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