Michael Fulcher’s farewell with organ recital at St Paul’s Cathedral

Great Music 2011: Organ of St Paul’s Cathedral

Franck: Chorale No 1; Jongen: Chant de mai; Henri Mulet: Carillon-Sortie; Vivaldi (arr. Bach): Concerto in A minor, BWV593; Vierne: Carillon de Westminster

Michael Fulcher (organ)

Cathedral of Saint Paul, Wellington

Friday 13 May 12.45pm

Michael Fulcher is moving on after seven years as Organist and Director of Music at the Anglican Cathedral. He is returning to Brisbane to take up the position of Organist at St John’s Cathedral, where he started as a choir boy.

Such an occasion might have called up a few war-horses like the Widor Toccata, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor or one of the Sorties by Lefébure-Wely. But the audience’s taste was flattered by less familiar, yet just as interesting music,

It opened with the first of Franck’s Chorales, one of the three that were his last compositions in the year of his death. Fulcher drew attention to the use of a new rank of stops in the Swell organ, the Vox humana, which he used for the second theme of the Choral, varied by opening and closing the Swell box. It was a gift of the National Carillonist, Timothy Hurd.

The performance was distinguished by his careful increasing of the richness of registrations, through what are basically variations on two related themes. Much of Franck’s organ music doesn’t reveal all its secrets at once, yet this performance more than suggested the rewards that come with familiarity.

Belgian composer Joseph Jongen was born in Liège, like Franck, and organ pieces form an interesting part of his output. His little piece¸ Chant de mai, was subtle in expression, and its performance maintained a clarity that allowed the later emergence of a romantic melody on the pedals to be enjoyed.

There was just one departure from the Franco-Belgian organ school: Bach’s arrangement of one of Vivaldi’s concertos for two violins, which became BWV 593. It was handled with a discretion proper to music of the period, on predominantly diapason stops, not too highly coloured, and Bach’s adaptation plus Fulcher’s comprehensive mastery of this organ offered all the evidence needed for its value in the Baroque repertoire.

Two carillons completed the programme. The first, Carillon-Sortie, by the somewhat obscure composer Henri Mulet, proved energetic, with many voices tending to tumble over each other in canon. It was a striking vehicle through which Fulcher’s virtuosity at the instrument could be heard without empty display. The last piece was the familiar Carillon de Westminster by Louis Vierne – based of course on the famous chimes. Its rather unvarying attachment to that theme hardly enhances its enjoyment by other than listeners of rudimentary experience in this kind of music in spite of its sophisticated harmonies and careful counterpoint. Nevertheless, it made for an arresting conclusion to this farewell recital.

In response to quite heart-felt applause from a largish audience, we had an encore in the form of a, for me, unknown piece by Jean Langlais (another blind organist) called Pasticcio from Ten Organ Pieces: almost comical sounds in dancing, dotted rhythms, that created towards the end, real or illusory echo effects. From what I have heard of Langlais in the past, I had not expected that he might have been given to such an overtly entertaining showpiece.

Michael Fulcher has made a major contribution to music in Wellington, both through his Cathedral activities, and as musical director of the Orpheus Choir, and he will be greatly missed. There is general interest in the selection of his successor.

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