Paul Rosoman’s adventurous organ recital at St Paul’s midday

Music by Karg-Elert, Marco Bossi, Guilmant, Liszt and John Bull

Paul Rosoman – organ

Cathedral of St Paul, Wellington

Friday 14 October, 12.45pm

The monthly organ series at the Anglican Cathedral might not get the sort of crowds one might have seen on the next two days in a big arena in Auckland, but for the few they are a valuable alternative, or perhaps an addition to the entertainments that otherwise dominate our world.

In all the quite frequent organ recitals that I get to around the city, I wonder at the profound change that has overcome the world in the past century, at the beginning of which communities had the will and could find the money to build generally rather beautiful buildings in which to celebrate their beliefs, and even more, to equip them with very expensive, technologically quite sophisticated musical instruments.

I am not an organist, but I have never been able to walk past a church where an organ is being played, and it is sad that today, one cannot even enter most churches freely, let alone stand and wait for the sound of an organ being played.

Paul Rosoman’s recital comes not long after his return from an interesting tour that took him to a small organ festival at Pelplin about 40km south of Gdansk in northern Poland. He also played in Germany and Britain.

He did not bring back any music from Poland but his programme was nevertheless very interesting: I had heard none of the music before.

It began with a highly diverting Homage to Handel, Sigfrid Karg-Elert’s Op 75. His name used to be more familiar – it was to me when my musical discoveries were starting in the 1950s – than it seems to be now, at least in New Zealand.

His piece is based on the same Handel theme – the Passacaglia from the Harpsichord Suite in G minor, HWV 432 – that was used by Johan Halvorsen in his Passacaglia for violin and viola that was played in a version for violin and cello, at the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson last February, and in March by the violinist and violist of the Antipodes Trio at Paekakariki and in August by members of the Mêler Ensemble.

But the tune is distinctive and didn’t need background familiarity to enjoy it.

This time it provided the compoer with the basis for the most extraordinary, virtuosic exercise in kaleidoscopic registration changes and combinations. The programme note said there were 50 distinct combinations of stops – I didn’t count though – and that it was rarely played because most organs lacked the necessary range or technology. I couldn’t tell whether the, to me, brilliant scope of the cathedral organ filled the bill or whether Rosoman had to make compromises.

It is indeed the kind of piece that would captivate the neophyte as well as gain the admiration of the aficionado, particularly in the commanding performance given here.

Marco Enrico Bossi was a few years older than Karg-Elert and his Chant de soir was obviously designed to charm a fairly general audience; interestingly scored for some of the prettier stops, sentimental in an intelligent way, a touch elegiac.

Then came a more substantial piece by Guilmant who, you will remember, was RNZ Concert’s ‘Composer of the Week’ a while back. This was the Scherzo from his Fifth Organ Sonata, Op 80; it turned out to be a quietish scherzo in its pace and dynamics but its scherzoicity (neoglism acceptable?) emerged from the flamboyance of its melodic lines and bravura passage-work.

A short piece by Liszt followed – a charming set of variations on a choral setting of a pretty 16th century Ave Maria by one Jacob Arcadelt. If you look up Wikipedia, as I did, you will see a small reproduction of Caravaggio’s famous painting , The Lute Player, which is said to show the young woman (? – but you know about Caravaggio don’t you?) playing music by Arcadelt. The painting is in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. It also shows very precise and interesting detail of the character of the lute and of a violin resting on a table, especially of the bow.

The music was not especially remarkable but provided a very nice link to the last piece – the entire recital was built on a reverse chronological sequence – by John Bull, a Rondo in G.

Bull (born a couple of years before Shakespeare)  left a large quantity of fine keyboard music and his position in English music in the Elizabethan-Jacobean period is very close to Byrd and Gibbons.  His life was eventful: in New Grove (and also in Wikipedia), interesting details of his life can be read. Wikipedia sums it up: “However, in addition to his virtuosity as a keyboard performer and composer, Bull was also skilled at getting into trouble.”

And a report written in 1615 by the Archbishop of Canterbury goes into a bit more detail: “the man hath more music than honesty and is as famous for marring of virginity as he is for fingering of organs and virginals.” – nice archiepiscopal double-entendre.

This Rondo struck me as an extraordinarily sophisticated piece of writing, though its very un-Renaissance sound and complexity would have resulted from performance on this organ. But I assume it is a modern arrangement, for its treatment is virtuosic, elaborate and opulent , seeming to relish its access to the organ’s power and tonal variety. It sounded great fun, and the long pause before the coda sounded far more 19th than 16th century. And Rosoman’s performance did it complete justice.

I could not identify the actual piece in New Grove, let alone Wikipedia.

This was a highly entertaining recital; such a pity that there weren’t a thousand organ-sceptics there ready for conversion.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *