Polish organist musically excellent but with distracting flamboyance

Organ works (and arrangements) by Buxtehude, Böhm, Bach, Sweelinck, Mendelssohn, Vivaldi, Chopin, Handel, Stanley and Zipoli

Gedymin Grubba (Poland)

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Mount Cook

Sunday, 17 October, 5pm

Gedymin Grubba, a Polish organist in his late twenties making his only appearance in New Zealand following his tour of Australia, played a programme well-suited to the delightful baroque-style organ at the Lutheran Church. There was no work later than those of Mendelssohn and Chopin, but the organ is not built for the resources required for most 19th to 21st century organ music, though there are some composers whose works would be suitable, e.g. some of Flor Peeters’ output.

Buxtehude’s Praeludium in F sharp began the largely baroque programme. Grubba (pronounced the same as Gruber) proved to play with an appropriately detached technique for this period of music. This piece began on the flutes and continued on reeds; throughout this quite lengthy piece in several sections, the range of registrations on the organ was explored.

The piece demonstrated Grubba’s fast footwork, and I could not fault the results. However, his style on both manuals and pedals was flamboyant and distracting. Any tendency towards pianistic technique (swinging elbows, rolling the fingers on the keys, much movement of the body) was quickly pounced on and eliminated by my organ teacher, Maxwell Fernie, at the first or second lesson. He explained that these movements did nothing to alter or improve the sound from the organ, unlike with the piano, where they can add weight to the sounding of the notes. The organ being mechanical rather than percussive, does not respond to these efforts.

Grubba’s pedal technique I also found unusual. He seemed to step on the pedals from a height rather than glide using the inner or outer sides of the feet. This may have contributed to a certain amount of mechanical noise from the pedals – or this may have been inherent in the style of the organ – and also sounds from the player’s shoes. Nevertheless, the detached style thus produced was suited to most of the music; in the Mendelssohn the pedal technique was more as I was taught. For all I know, the authentic school may favour Grubba’s style. There was no question of the organist’s accuracy or athleticism in this department.

Perhaps this effort was the reason for Grubba not wearing a jacket, on what was a rather cool Wellington spring day. His wife unobtrusively pulled the stops when required, and as he played entirely from photocopied music, she moved the pages across slowly as needed. The printed programme listed the composers (with dates) and the titles and other details of the works, but gave no notes for this hour-and-a-half long recital.

Staying in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, we were treated to a manuals-only chorale partita Christe, der du bist Tag und Licht by Georg Böhm. The music was grateful, and beautifully articulated.

It was followed by two of J.S. Bach’s works: the lovely short chorale prelude Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein. The melody was played using a mellifluous flute stop, but the line of the chorale melody was not always maintained, and the rhythm was jerky at times. The grace notes should lead onto the related melody notes, just as they would be if the chorale were sung, and not be broken from them, unless they are repeated notes.

The Prelude and Fugue in G major BWV 541, involved more fancy footwork. This relatively early work certainly demonstrated the skills of both composer and organist.

After the elaborate Bach, Sweelinck’s Psalm 23 was nice and simple, played on one manual only.

It was followed by the longest work in the programme, the fourth organ sonata of Mendelssohn, in B flat, Opus 65. What a different sound this was! Grubba managed to make the organ sound like a smaller version of the large nineteenth century organs the composer would have known. There was more mixing of ranks and use of couplers.

The first movement, allegro con brio, was grand; the second (andante religioso) somewhat sentimental to modern ears; the allegretto third, a charming movement played initially on flutes, and in the latter part, the melody was carried by the left hand on the upper manual. The allegro maestoso e vivace finale was possibly on full organ. It opened with a chorale rather reminiscent of ‘God save the Queen’. The ending was bright, employing a two-foot stop. The varied tempi and registration of this work held my attention in a way that others of Mendelssohn’s organ sonatas have not – or perhaps those were in less competent hands than Grubba’s.

The second half of the recital commenced with a transcription of ‘Spring’ from The Four Seasons by Vivaldi. I had never heard such an arrangement before (this one was by the organist himself). It was certainly lively and entertaining, but I found it too heavy, particularly at the opening, compared with its original orchestra setting.

Another transcription by Grubba followed: the well-known ‘Raindrop’ Prelude (in D flat major Op.28 no.15) by his fellow countryman, Chopin. This I also found too heavy compared with its piano original, and not really compatible with the organ. Repeated notes were not always separated sufficiently; the notes (raindrops) needed to be more detached, as they would be on the piano. The middle section with the melody on the pedals sounded dull; perhaps use of the 8-foot pipes would have carried the mood better. Or perhaps it was meant to be humorous?

As a complete contrast, next was Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. This transfers to the organ very successfully. Apart from a couple of fluffed notes, this was a very bright performance, the 2-foot stop really suiting the music. Here, the articulation was just right.

The only Englishman in the recital was John Stanley (unless you count Handel as English, especially since the final item was from an oratorio with English words). His Voluntary in E was a slow piece, on manuals. The sparkly second section on flutes included the 2-foot on the upper manual, and was quite delightful.

Domenico Zipoli I had heard of; he was an Italian composer (1688—1726) who died in Argentina. His ‘All’ Offertorio’ was a vivid piece. Both it and the following ‘Pastorale’ were for manuals only, with a drone pedal. The second was slower; a rather characterless section was followed by a brief lively one for manuals only. Then a ponderous section with drone pedal through part of it followed, with interesting key changes. This was repeated, and – did I hear a cuckoo? Nice articulation was a feature of this performance.

The programme wound up in triumphal style with the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Messiah by a composer now spelt Haendel. This rousing end gave the organ a good work-out, with manuals coupled, and I think I detected the Mixture stop.

Grubba’s rhythm was always spot on, though I think he could have used a little more rubato at times. There was good variety in the programme, and it made for an enjoyable recital by this skilful player.

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