Organist Elke Voelker in excellent varied programme at the Basilica

Handel: Fireworks Music (transcribed by E. Power Biggs)
Bach: Adagio from Orchestral Suite in D (transcribed by S. Karg-Elert)
Rheinberger: Romanze from 9th Organ Sonata in B minor
Mendelssohn: Prelude and Fugue in D minor
Grieg: Anitra’s Dance from Peer Gynt Suite (transcribed by E.H. Lemare)

Karg-Elert: ‘Now thank we all our God’, from Chorale Improvisations, Opp.65/59
Vierne: Aria from 6th Organ Symphony
Wagner: Festmusik from Die Meistersinger (transcribed by Sigfrid Karg-Elert

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Sunday, 6 March 2011, 2.30pm

Probably not many people beyond the organist fraternity know the music of Sigfrid Karg-Elert, who lived from 1877 to1933. Elke Voelker is part of the way through recording all the composer’s organ works on CD, and on Sunday she played one of his compositions, plus two transcriptions that he made of famous orchestral pieces.

Poor attendance at the recital may have been due to the inclement weather but also due to the unfortunate but understandable close proximity of another organ recital – that by four organists on the newly-restored organ at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Willis Street on Friday evening, in memory of the staff of the South Island Organ Company who recently carried out the work on that instrument, and who died in the Durham Street Methodist Church in Christchurch, during the earthquake of 22 February.

Elke Voelker herself was very shocked by that event, having played on the Christchurch Cathedral organ in March last year.

The pitiful audience of just 13 people were given a wide-ranging programme.

The Handel music featured robust, detached playing in the Overture and The Rejoicing, with the 4-foot and 2-foot ranks sounding rather shrill in the nearly empty building. The legato Peace movement was most attractive. The Bourée and Minuet movements seemed too fast – it would not be possible to perform those dances at that speed!

The transcription of the Bach Adagio was very tasteful but to my mind the melody’s repeated notes needed to be more detached and it should have been phrased, not played continuously. In the early part the rhythm was not always even.

The marvellous Fantasia and Fugue in G minor forms a very grand and exciting example of Bach’s skill and invention, and is one of the better-known of the composer’s major organ works. The lively opening subject of the fugue is often given the words ‘O Ebenezer Prout, you are a funny man’, thus immortalising an eminent analyst and writer on counterpoint of an earlier age. One writer has said “The subject of the Fugue is one of the finest ever devised. (It was based on an old Dutch folk-song.) …the speed, quantity of notes and complexity of part-writing (all magnificently musically motivated) seem to produce a physical thrill in the player… perhaps the same feeling a racing-driver has when taking a fast car over a tricky but well-known road.”

Voelker’s registration was excellent, and the fugue very clear, resulting in a very satisfying performance of this great work.

The next item was something completely different: Rheinberger’s Romanze was attractive, and lived up to its name in the chromatic manner of its period.

Mendelssohn’s Prelude and Fugue was notable for a thrilling opening with huge chords alternating with runs involving lots of rapid finger-work, but placed alongside Bach, Handel and Rheinberger, was not very inspired – even though Mendelssohn was a great fan of J.S. Bach.

Grieg’s beautiful piece was very pleasingly registered and played, with delightful use of a 2-foot rank.

Karg-Elert’s is a grand piece, played by many organists (including me), and probably his best-known. Volker’s quavers were uneven at the beginning, but lots of accelerando and rubato were certainly acceptable and added to the mood and effect of the music, which includes interesting harmonies.

The Aria from Vierne’s 6th symphony, written in 1930, was the most modern work on the programme. Its intriguing and piquant harmonies and intervals and bright, upbeat mood were echoed in the registrations employed.

As a grand finale, nothing could be more truly festive than the Festmusik of Wagner. It was an excellent transcription, and made a rousing end to the recital.

The programme, combining works written for the organ with four transcriptions, demonstrated well the range of pipes on this first-class instrument. I thought it was a little out of tune in the upper reaches – this may have been due to the weather.

A wonderful new asset to the church, whose forms (rather than proper pews), have provided such discomfort to many of us in the past, so that we have brought our own cushions to concerts, are handsome red seat cushions on the front seven rows of seats. Comfort at last! Let’s hope this welcome development continues to all the seating in the church.

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