Michael Stewart’s adventurous organ recital at Cathedral of Saint Paul

Presented by the Wellington Organists’ Association

Praeludium No 2 in E minor (Bruhns); Fugue in A flat minor, WoO 8 (Brahms); Trio on ‘Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr’, BWV 676 (Bach); ‘Wondrous Love’ – Variations on a shape note hymn (Barber); Master Tallis’s Testament and Paean from Six Pieces for Organ (Howells)

Cathedral of Saint Paul, Wellington

Friday 10 September, 12.45pm

This was one of the regular Friday recitals given on the cathedral organ, and it contributed importantly to the plethora of organ recitals all over the city during National Organ Month.

We heard the music director, Michael Stewart, from the rival cathedral up the road, the Sacred Heart, in the very model of a programme for a National Organ Month. It reached into lesser-known territory, but never into the quite large body of vapid music that finds its way too often into organ recitals. Absent was any music from the great 19th and 20th century French school, and for once I did not miss it, such was the pleasure and sense of discovery in the entire three-quarter hour recital.

I don’t recall hearing music by Bruhns before; he was, like Bach briefly, a pupil of Buxtehude who was based at Lübeck. Bruhns was born, a generation before Bach, in the province of Schleswig-Holstein that vaccilated between German states and Denmark, and he became organist to the Danish court at Copenhagen. This piece was the longer of two Praeludiums that he wrote in E minor; I was charmed by several passages, particularly rhythmic flute ostinati. The whole piece, which easily sustained interest through its ten minutes or so, struck me forcibly as more varied and characterful than what I know of Buxtehude; there were many phases that seemed to have been written a lot later than the late 17th century. Sadly, Bruhns died of plague in 1697, aged 31. Its brilliant playing on this fine, colourful organ made it an engrossing discovery.

Bach’s Trio in G on ‘Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr’ is one of three chorale preludes on this hymn that form part of he Clavier-Übung III (‘keyboard practice’: No III being the only one of the four volumes of Clavier-Übung designed for the organ). This too was clearly chosen as a diverting piece for midday with tripping rhythms in triple time, with colourful exercises that involved repeated shifts from manual to manual.

Brahms’s organ music is generally in the shadow of his orchestral, chamber and piano music and songs, but his organ music always impresses me too. This Fugue, without Opus number, written in 1856, began with a careful statement of the tune which slowly gathered strength through the increasing complexity of its fugal evolution. It impressed as an early work, not just for the singularly skilled and inventive writing which never seemed a mere academic fugal exercise or to fall into mere repetition; nevertheless its musical richness and command of fugal techniques had an engrossing, emotional impact.

Samuel Barber’s was another novelty for me, a piece based on a hymn that employed the ‘Shape note’ system, an American notation system that uses differently shaped notes to indicate pitch. A religious tune with a simple, primitive quality, it offered Barber a basis for sympathetic treatment, not through piling on complexity but by elaborating the tune, varying the harmonies and registrations, with imaginative passages in low registers over pedals to create a genuine religious feeling, that Stewart never allowed to be  overwhelmed by the forces at his disposal.

Two pieces from Herbert Howells’s Six Pieces for Organ ended the recital; the first somber and introspective, reflecting that slightly dull seriousness that characterizes some English music; that soon gave way however to robust and interesting reflective passages. The Paean began with the Swell closed, but the volume and richness of registrations steadily increased till the final phase, meandering and suspenseful, created a blaze of excitement towards the end.

It was a splendid programme designed to offer the curious plenty of rewarding discoveries, of the kind we hear too little of; but much more than that, these were all performances that were vivid in their range and imaginative in their combination of stops, rhythmically bracing, ornamented with taste and bravura, played by hands and feet with huge agility.

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