Dianne Halliday’s organ recital at Sacred Heart Cathedral

Wellington Organists’ Association  – National Organ Month

Simon Preston: Alleluyas
Arthur Wills: Lullaby for a Royal Prince
Flor Peeters: Aria
Jean Langlais: Organ Book
P.D.Q. Bach (alias Peter Schickele): Sonata da Circo S 3-ring (Circus Sonata)
Max Reger: Benedictus,
Healey Willan: Passacaglia and Fugue in E minor, no.2

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Tuesday, 7 September, 12.45pm

Another (poorly attended) recital in this series was quite a contrast to the previous one: this was entitled ‘Make a Joyful Noise’, and so it did on the whole, accompanied in the first half by the sounds of screams, shrieks and yells of the children from the adjacent Catholic primary school in the Cathedral’s forecourt.

It was surprising to have a programme entirely of twentieth (or nineteenth to twentieth) century composers; only one work, Reger’s, was written in the nineteenth century.   Appropriate too, since this week’s Composers of the Week, marking National Organ Week, are twentieth and twenty-first century composers for the organ.

The programme began with a work by noted organist Simon Preston.  This was perhaps the most exciting item in the whole programme.  It included intriguing harmonies and pentatonic melodies.  There was lovely use of quiet stops,  after a dramatic opening; there was a grand ending.

Arthur Wills, another British organist, wrote his piece to celebrate the birth of Prince William.  It was suitably soft, with a gentle rocking rhythm.  A very attractive piece, it reminded me of  the Adagio from Suite Modale by Flor Peeters, whose Aria followed – a slow, reflective piece, using a narrow range of notes.

The Langlais piece was improvisatory in style, and consisted of five movements: a Prelude that was very quiet and subtle, though with contrasting sections; Pastoral Song, to which the same description could be applied, then Chorale in E minor.  This featured large chords, but was still relatively soft and simple.  A reed stop was introduced, but the music remained slow – and not very interesting.  A pleasant movement for flutes followed, and then Pasticcio, which contributed more robust sound, through medieval-sounding pentatonic music with the trumpet stop.

The indefatigable P.D.Q. Bach (whose dates were given as 1907-1742?) made a welcome humorous intrusion into the programme.  Dianne Halliday reproduced Schickele’s 1995 ‘Performance Note’ and ‘Program Notes’ in the printed programme, from which we learned that the work was written for ‘your standard calliope’; I learn from my dictionary that calliope is a US term for a steam organ!    Among other amusing (dis)information in the notes was the following: “Circus Berserkus, though small, was widely traveled”.  This is marked by the fact that the titles of the movements are in four different languages.

‘Spiel Vorspiel’ was a jolly little fast waltz, employing amusing chords and intervals.  ‘Entrada Grande’ did sound rather like mechanical circus music, followed by a tedious scale passage – was this for the animals processing into the arena?  ‘Smokski the Russian Bear’ featured variations on Bach’s ‘Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring’ – not on the chorale melody, but on the accompaniment  (the only bit of JSB heard in two days’ organ recitals).  It ended with a bear-like cluster of sounds.  ‘Toccata Ecdysiastica’ used chirpy flute stops, notably a 2-foot – perhaps this was dizzy ecstasy?*  A well-known tune was the bass melody.   P.D.Q. Bach’s work was quite demanding technically – and harmonically!

Max Reger’s Benedictus opened very quietly, and employed much chromatic writing, typical of the late nineteenth century, under the influence of Wagner and others.   A louder second section was followed by reversion to the very quiet mood of the opening.

Healey Willan (1873-1968) was an Englishman who spent most of his life in Canada.  I found his Passacaglia more interesting and varied harmonically than the Reger work.  It also was quite chromatic, and at times rather portentous.  The fugue was strong with a very full ending, giving rein to an extensive registration.

It was pleasing to have such a varied programme, impeccably played.

*I find that ecdysis is a real word, meaning the periodic shedding of the cuticle or exoskeleton of certain insects, and reptiles.  So perhaps the chirping was that of insects and reptiles, enthusiastically shedding their outer layers?

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