Town Hall Organ Series 2009 – Douglas Mews

Variations on La Marseillaise (Balbastre), Scherzo from Symphony No 6 (Vierne), In Paradisum (Dubois), Scherzo (Gigout), Grande Pièce Symphonique Franck)

Douglas Mews at the organ

Presented by the Wellington Convention Centre

Town Hall, Sunday 9 August 2009

Now that Wellington has a City Organist to help ensure the better use of one of the greatest, substantially unmodified, organs of its kind in the world, it is good that a recital series is under way.

This one was entitled Vive la France and it celebrated, after a fashion, French organ music. I can understand the motivation for a concert of mainly light, even meretricious, pieces of organ music: the hope of attracting the crowds with some organ fireworks.

Well, I was indeed surprised to find all the seats in the stalls of the Town Hall occupied when I arrived a minute late: clearly the organisers had miscalculated the level of interest and had not put out enough seats and had even closed the gallery (not a bad idea since people tend to sit around the curve of the gallery, so far away that the hall can appear thinly peopled).

Balbastre’s games with the French National Anthem were under way when I arrived. Written, said the programme note, in 1792 (La Marseillaise itself was written by Claude Joseph Rouget de l’Isle in April 1792, in Alsace, as Chant de Guerre pour l’armée du Rhin, but got its name when it was played by a Marseillaise battalion in Paris later), it did little for that most dynamic of all national hymns apart from running through some standard routines used in the ‘variation’ form at the time. I did not mind being a bit late.

The next piece was played by Tom Gaynor with help from Richard Prothero (organ scholars of the New Zealand School of Music and of St Paul’s Cathedral, respectively): the scherzo movement from Vierne’s Sixth Symphony. In introducing the piece, Douglas Mews told the familiar story of his death at the console of the main organ in Notre Dame, falling onto the pedal E flat which continued to sound until it occurred to someone that an unusually sustained pedal note was not resolving into, say, A flat. He reassured us that Gaynor would probably make it through. Death at the organ console was a Paris speciality: One story has Tournemire dying at St Clotilde (formerly Franck’s church), but there are other, more authentic if as strange, accounts of his death.

The other important qualification for organists was blindness; Vierne, Langlais, Litaize, to name three.

We rarely hear more than a few of Vierne’s occasional pieces, such as the Carillon de Westminster, and isolated movements from his six symphonies for organ (he also wrote one orthodox orchestral one). Yet he is a major figure, Franck’s worthy successor (he did have several).

Though Vierne was born in Poitiers, in west central France, it has been pointed out that the great French school of organ composition and performance was born in Belgium: Franck was born in Liège and two other major influences on Vierne, Nicolas Lemmens and François Joseph Fétis taught at the Brussels Conservatoire.

The Scherzo is hardly typical of Vierne’s music, it is light, jazzy, almost flippant, and while no doubt offering performance hurdles, certainly sets up no intellectual challenges.

There followed a couple of other light-weight pieces, by Dubois (In Paradisum) and a Scherzo by Gigout, which were colourful, were decorated by what could be described as tunes; they served to built up an impatience for the major work in the programme – Franck’s Grande pièce symphonique, the largest of his works for organ.

I deplore personal anecdotes that are mere name dropping, but here goes.

My most memorable hearing of it was at Notre Dame, Paris, about 25 years ago. The organ was playing something I didn’t know, though obviously Franck. I sat transported by my good fortune and by the whole situation: being in Notre Dame again, the dim light sifting through stained glass, the murmur of voices, the voluptuous music echoing in the vast cathedral; at the end I asked a woman, also listening rapt, what it was and it was this piece. My life seemed to be utterly fulfilled.

Much as I love Franck’s music, the reality of this piece, recollecting that hearing, sometimes doesn’t quite fulfils my expectations. It might well have been a symphony or sonata in one movement, though it is in three sections, and though its shape and the character of the phases through which it passes can seem a little meandering, rhapsodic, a bit disconnected, but the succession of romantically coloured episodes played predominantly on dark purple, diapason stops, with sudden little fanfares on Bombarde-like stops, a lovely, typically Franckian melody in the Andante central section which ‘hovers round the third note of the scale’ in the words of one commentator.

Perhaps this performance employed registrations that were too colourful, too many reed stops, but ultimately it was a great experience in spite of the absence of dim light shafting through mystic gothic arches; it was on an organ well equipped to do it justice, by an organist who had the technical resources and the taste, and the French and Franckian sensibility to make it a performance in which to immerse oneself in contentment.

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