Michael Fulcher demonstrates virtues of Congregational Church organ

National Organ Month: Michael Fulcher

Music by Samuel Sebastian Wesley, Thomas Dunhill, Mendelssohn, Stanford and Elgar

Congregational Church, Cambridge Terrace

Thursday 30 September 12.45pm

The pages of Middle C have been unusually filled by reviews of organ recitals over the past month on account of National Organ Month, which is one of the more useful special celebrations in the musical calendar.

Interest in the organ lies rather outside the field of vision for many music lovers and, I suppose, particularly as a result of religious belief and church-going seeming to be in permantent decline.

Though I was perhaps disadvantaged by being brought up in an agnostic family, I was lucky through my secondary school years to have a best friend whose family were musicians, and in particular, church musicians. After they moved to Christchurch, and he became, aged 16 or so, organist at St Paul’s church, Papanui, I could experiment on its two manual pipe organ: Finlandia, I remember, sounded especially wonderful. .  Agnosticism has never got in the way of loving the music that religion has given the world; so I have never been able to walk past a church where an organ was being played.

Michael Fulcher brought Organ Month to a close in Wellington, on the organ that he’d confessed the week before, was one of his favourites in the city.

I was a couple of minutes late and he was already charging through the Fugal section of a Choral Song and Fugue by Samuel Sebastian Wesley (born 200 years ago, along with Schumann and Chopin and Nicolai and Lumbye…).

Fulcher had chosen stops that fitted the space on the church admirably so that the effect was grand, vivid and exciting, with a clarity that allowed each register to be heard; the accumulations in the climactic fugue, complementing the Song very sympathetically, depended rather on exploiting more of the organ’s full resources.

Rather less grand, the Air and Gavotte from the same composer’s Twelve Short Pieces, demonstrated the more refined aspects of the organ’s character, each phrase played on different flute or reed stops; the staccato rhythms of the Gavotte were accompanied by adroit manipulation of the stops.

Dunhill’s name is more familiar to young piano students, though hardly to the average listener. His Cantilena Romantica is a charming, far from merely sentimental, piece that offered another opportunity to hear the range of the organ’s colours, in a performance that gave life to a piece that might not sound so interesting on a recording.

The centre piece of the concert was Mendelssohn’s Sonata No 6 in D minor. Though it’s not very orthodox in the pattern of its movements, it is a more interesting piece than might have been expected from a request from an English publisher.

Fulcher’s registrations were at once, in the opening Chorale and variations, in striking contrast with the preceding English pieces: sombre, in a serious Bach vein (the tune is from Bach’s choraleVater unser im Himmelreich’, BWV 416). Even though its rhythm was more lively, the following Allegro molto maintained the diapason character of the Chorale movement. The third movement, Fugue, proved the most spectacular display of the concert, highly decorated passages with rushing scales and the use of the heaviest stops. It was a movement, among others, that one can hardly imagine coming off in either the Town Hall or the Anglican Cathedral because of the avalanche of notes. Apparently these sonatas were not much played in England for many years; in fact, the character of the Fugal movement struck me as presaging the French toccata style that emerged a half century later. The last movement is a deceptive Andante, meditative, not the least flamboyant; and Fulcher’s performance gave it the best possible recommendation.

The rest of the programme was much less significant, though both pieces were well chosen for their particular qualities. Stanford’s Voluntary No 1, modest in substance and in performance, evolved very engagingly; and Elgar’s Imperial March (Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee) was another opportunity for virtuoso display, not merely by the player but of this little-appreciated organ’s singular strengths and brilliant colours.





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