Organist Richard Apperley celebrates Advent and Christmas

Modern organ music for Advent and Christmas, by Andrew Baldwin, Marcel Dupré, Flor Peeters, Charles Ives, David Farquhar, Wilbur Held, Maughan Barnett.

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Friday, 10 December 2010, 12.45pm

A fine organ recital from Richard Apperley consisted of mainly short seasonal pieces. All the composers were either born in the twentieth century, or did most of their composing in that century. Three New Zealand composers featured.

Andrew Baldwin was Composer in Residence at the Cathedral from 2006-2008, and wrote An Advent Prelude for Apperley in 2009; this was its first public performance. Charming chord progressions, alternation between manuals and much use of the swell pedal, allowing for gradual build-up from pianissimo passages were features, as were key changes. Not a profound work, it nevertheless made pleasant listening.

Dupré was one of the great French organist-composers. His ‘Ecce Dominus veniet’ (Behold the Lord cometh) from his Six Antiphons for the Christmas Season was short and sweet: attractive, but not diverse in style or key.

Another organist-composer, this time Belgian, was Flor Peeters. His music for organ is varied and imaginative, as was ‘Hirten, er ist geboren’ (Shepherds, he is born). At the beginning there was delightful use of a 2-foot stop in running passages for the right hand, with the chorale melody below. The music reminded me of flights of birds, or music as droplets of sound.

Charles Ives, the American composer, had studied the organ in his youth. His Prelude ‘Adeste Fidelis’ began with a sustained high note, which changed to dissonant chords, followed by the melody in the lower part, against ever more dissonant chords and pedal before the return of the high note. It was a thoroughly innovative treatment of the well-known tune.

Another well-known Christmas melody was the subject of David Farquhar’s piece: ‘“…From Heaven I come” with Song and Dance and Dance’; variations on ‘Vom Himmel Hoch’. While I found a few parts of this setting a bit dull, at least in the Cathedral’s acoustic, overall it was interesting. The trumpet declaimed the melody, with intermittent chords below it, then flutes varied it discursively. They were followed by variations interspersed between the manuals in a variety of registrations, the pedals not being consistently employed. A declamation on reeds was followed by frisky flute runs. This was quite a demanding piece, that ended in a great roar. We would not think of Farquhar as a composer for organ, but he obviously knew his way around it. The programme note states that Apperley worked with David Farquhar to prepare registrations for a performance of the work on Christmas Day in 2002.

American Wilbur Held (b.1914) was represented by a setting of the Christmas hymn ‘Of the Father’s love begotten’. The high-pitched opening was an unusual and appealing treatment of the theme. The variation introduced chords in a variety of harmonies. A most enchanting setting ended calmly.

Maughan Barnett was English, but moved to New Zealand in 1893, and to the position of organist and choirmaster at Wellington’s St. John’s Presbyterian Church two years later. He became the first city organist in 1908. He wrote music for a variety of important occasions, and was a notable figure in the city’s musical scene until his death in 1938. His ‘Introduction and Variations on the Christmas Hymn ‘Mendelssohn’’ (alias ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’) was quite a lengthy piece. It began loudly and robustly, in good Victorian or Edwardian style (its date of composition is not known).

There was plenty of decoration, full organ contrasting with more straightforward playing of the hymn tune. The first variation featured broken chords on two manuals. I must admit I was reminded of someone slurping porridge, interspersed with doing the same with their cup of tea (i.e. the higher pitched registrations).

The second variation had a background of rapidly running notes, while the melody itself was subject to some variation. The third began with bombastic chords, and put the tune into a minor key, while the fourth had the tune rendered more or less straight, on a reed stop over a quiet accompaniment. The next one had a bland registration of the melody with harmony on the pedals, but above that, lovely runs on a 2-foot registration.

The sixth and final variation began with quiet chords on reeds, the melody having varied harmonisations and decorations, moving into a full harmony treatment on diapasons with some upper variations, and finally a grand ending.

Apperley’s playing was impeccable and tasteful throughout the varied programme of considerable interest.

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