Organics for free at the International Arts Festival in Wellington

John Wells – Organ Recital at the Wellington Town Hall

JS Bach – Toccata and Fugue in D Minor BWV 565 / Frank Bridge – Adagio in E Major

Alfred Hollins – Concerto Overture No.2 / Cesar Franck – Piece Heroique

Josef Rheinberger – Sonata No.3 “The Pastoral” Op.88 / Alfred Louis James Lefebure-Wely – Sortie in B-flat

Saturday 6th March

Douglas Mews – Organ Recital at the Wellington Town Hall

Edwin Lemare – Marche Moderne / Erima Maewa Kaihau –  A koako o te Rangi (Whisper of Heaven)

JS Bach – Prelude and Fugue in A Minor BWV 543 / Brahms – 2 Chorale Preludes Op.122

Tchaikovsky (arr. Lemare) – Fantasy Overture “Romeo and Juliet”

Sunday 7th March

Each one of these recitals was given for free at the Wellington Town Hall, both showing off the resplendent grandeur and variety of tones of the Town Hall’s recently refurbished organ. Of the two recitals I enjoyed John Wells’ as a whole better, largely because of the programming, though both his and Douglas Mews’s recitals had some very fine and interesting things in them. Each featured  some resplendent Bach, Wells treating us to the old warhorse the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (which showed off the organ excellently) and Douglas Mews the A Minor Prelude and Fugue BWV 543, a tighter, rather less theatrical and Gothic work, though one with some light and shade during the fugue, via an episode of contrasting registration, before the final payoff returned us to imposing magnificence. But John Wells’s programme showed us more of the instrument’s byways via works by Frank Bridge, Alfred Hollins and Josef Rheinberger, then concluding with some absolutely delightful music by Alfred Louis James Lefebure-Wely, a lovely Andante from a larger work “Meditaciones Religiosas” and a “Sortie in E flat” of a kind that would be played as a postlude to a Mass at a Parisian Church such as Saint Suplice.

What came off best for me in Douglas Mews’ recital, besides the Bach Prelude and Fugue, was a charming work by Erima Maewa Kaihau, one called “A koako o te Rangi” (Whisper of Heaven), music which readily evoked a strong, rich period charm. I was moved to try and find out something about Erima Maewa Kaihau, a name I didn’t know (as it turned out, to my shame!) – born in 1879 at Whangaroa, she was given the name Louisa Flavell by her European father, whose background was suffused with romantic conjecture. He was supposedly descended from a member of the French aristocracy who escaped the bloodshed of the Revolution, and also from a musician connected with the court of the Austrian Emperor. On her mother’s side her whakapapa could boast the Nga Puhi chief Hone Hika of Ngati Rahiri. Maewa married Henare Kaihau, by whom she had six daughters and two sons – Kaihau was the MP for Western Maori until about 1920. Maewa’s musical talents expressed themselves readily in song-writing, most famously with the song  “Haere ra”, known in English as “Now is the Hour”, and also “A koako o te Rangi” (“Whisper of Heaven”). The latter was recorded by the famous singer Ana Hato, but I don’t as yet know who made the transcription for organ solo. Erima Maewa Kaihau died in 1941.

I thought it was unfortunate that Douglas Mews chose to conclude his recital with a transcription of Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” Overture. In theory the idea had some interest, but in practice it wasn’t a success – the transcription, though it suited some aspects of the work (the slow wind chording at the beginning, for example) failed to deliver the goods in other places. What disappointed me most seriously was the conflict music between the Montagues and the Capulets, which sounded both underpowered and rhythmically out-of-sorts. I could imagine that transcriptions of this sort would have had their place in the days when symphony concerts were less common and accessible to people than they are now, and this was the means by which a lot of music got a hearing at all. As such, the exercise had, I suppose, a kind of historical-kitsch value. But really, Tchaikovsky’s music wasn’t done any favours; and I couldn’t help thinking that, if organists really wanted to play symphonic music they ought to investigate (or make) transcriptions of things like the Bruckner symphonies, whose harmonies, textures, and rhythmic trajectories would seem far more suited to the instrument. I could even, I think, really enjoy a work like the Cesar Franck Symphony in an inspired transcription – there would be some point to hearing in transcription such works which probably owe some of their gestation to the activities of their composers in the organ-loft. However, I fear that, on the evidence of what we heard, some music might well be left well alone!

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