Thomas Gaynor opens National Organ Month

Pieces by Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Lemare, Bonnet, Widor and Vierne

Thomas Gaynor – Organ

Cambridge Terrace Congregational Church, Wellington

Thursday 2 September, 12.45pm

September is National Organ Month and Wellington organists have filled the first fortnight with performances on several of the city’s most interesting organs.

Though there had been a recital on Tuesday the 31st, on the organ at Old St Paul’s, a little light-weight recital by Ken MacKenzie, the month began on the remarkably good organ in what is now the Cambridge Terrace Congregational Church. The organist was Thomas Gaynor, one of the more talented students at present studying at the New Zealand School of Music where he is in the second year of a B. Mus. At 13 he was Junior Organ Scholar at the Cathedral of St Paul, and is now Richard Prothero Organ Scholar at the Cathedral. Last year he won the New Zealand Association of Organists’ competition and the intermediate section of the Sydney Organ Competition; he has toured to Europe with the cathedral choir, playing and singing at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, Westminster Abbey and Saint-Eustache in Paris.

His programme opened with the first movement  from Elgar’s Organ Sonata, which I missed most of. Then I was a little disconcerted when his next piece was a famous organ lollipop by Edwin Lamare, Andantino in D flat, Op 83 No 2 (aka Moonlight and Roses, from the words later attached to it by someone else). Lemare (1866-1934) was a distinguished English organist and composer who toured widely through America, coming to New Zealand where he had a hand in designing the Auckland Town Hall organ, according to Wikipedia.

Gaynor told us the story of Lemare’s battle to get a share of the royalties from the published song which sold millions of copies, and which he eventually won. As well as making impressive demands on the organist’s technique, the piece lends itself to gross sentimentalizing, but by honestly acknowledging that, Gaynor drew out its plain musical quality, investing it with some charm.

Gaynor also drew attention to another technical quirk: a technique known as ‘thumbing down’ where the left hand plays an accompaniment on the Choir manual, while the fingers of the right hand play the tune on the Solo manual, and the thumb of the right hand simultaneously plays the tune on the Great manual, which is below the Solo manual, in parallel sixths. He thus played on three manuals at once.

We were all enthralled.

Vaughan Williams followed – one of the Three Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes: Rhosymedre. Though this too risks sentimental handling and he did not refrain from using heavy diapason stops, his skilled and discriminating playing made it a small piece of some consequence.

I might be revealing, again, Francophile prejudice, but I felt that the rest of the programme was what an organ recital should focus on, if it’s not to be Bach. Gaynor chose three of Franck’s pupils/successors: Widor, Vierne and Bonnet.

Bonnet’s Op 1, Variations de concert, is not a complex or particularly ambitious work; beginning with a splendidly arresting introduction on the full organ, it proceeds to lay out the tune which is followed by three pretty and well contrasted variations. The third is the show-piece, a stentorian beginning, then a spectacular solo for the pedals in which the audience’s attention was entirely on what was visible below the bench, and a peroration, again displaying pedal bravura with equally virtuosic handling of the manuals.

Widor is known mainly for one famous movement, from his Fifth Organ Symphony. Its fame is not unjustified; however, the virtues of his other music – and there’s a lot of it – are not immediate. On the one hand, it can sound facile and merely pretty; on the other hand, that superficial character works its way with you and seems misleading; unlike some music of apparent profoundity which comes to seem boring after a while, one’s respect for much of the French organ school increases with familiarity and it soon gains a special life of its own.

There’s no doubt that the organ repertoire can seem too dominated by technicalities and by organists’ skills, as distinct from musicality. Simply because of the considerable amount of knowledge that has to be mastered, of registrations, which vary from instrument to instrument, as well as the focus on technique, music-lovers from other areas often feel alien. The Andante sostenuto from Widor’s Symphonie Gothique exemplifies concern with the player’s skills, particularly in the pedal department. Gaynor succeeded in making real music of it.

Lastly, Gaynor played two of the pieces from Vierne’s collections of Pièces de fantaisie: Naïades and Carillon de Westminster. He played the first with scintillating delicacy, light-weight I suppose, but not vacuous. The Carillon finds its way into many CD organ anthologies and is certainly an entertaining and hypnotic piece, given to insistent rhythms and ostinati. It provided Thomas Gaynor with a splendid chance to demonstrate his ability to handle the instrument, and it’s an excellent instrument, with wonderful skill but to discover the real music within these attractive and flamboyant works.

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