Janet Gibbs delightful organ recital at Old St Paul’s

J.S. Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565
Chorale Prelude ‘Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland’, BWV 659
Chorale and two variations ‘Sei Gegrüsset, Jesu Gütig’, BWV 768
Fantasia in G, BWV 572
Mendelssohn: Sonata no.6 – Chorale, Fugue, Finale
Christopher Tambling: Trumpet Tune
Ceremonial March

Janet Gibbs, organ

Old St. Paul’s

Tuesday, 7 August 2012, 12.15pm

Janet Gibbs chose a delightful programme that was a mix of the well-known, the lesser-known and the unknown.

Sitting quite close to the organ, I was aware of its quite strident sound, facing directly out to the auditorium as it does, rather than into the choir, or from a gallery, or from a side alcove as in most churches.  However, I soon became accustomed to this.  The great advantage in Old St. Paul’s is that one can see the organist at work, albeit necessarily a back view, whereas in so many cathedrals, Town Halls etc. the audience is remote from the performer and can see little or nothing.

Wellington City Council’s free winter Sunday afternoon recitals, begun for the hundredth birthday of the organ and continued for a number of years, sadly are no more.  There, they had the great idea of removing the rear panel from behind the organist, and relaying onto two large screens live video of the movements of hands and feet, interspersed with views of the inside of the organ.

The famous Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor (shown as G minor in the printed programme) was taken at quite a fast pace compared with that of most renditions of this familiar work that I have heard.  However, this did not prove to be a problem either to the organist or to the hearers.  The fact that Janet Gibbs turned her own pages of music and changed her registrations herself made her performance even more impressive than it already was from the fine playing.

I thoroughly enjoyed hearing so much of Bach’s organ music.  The next piece ‘Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland’ was quite gorgeous in the way it developed from a quiet beginning, and opened out.  I found myself transported by the music in a manner different from that effected by any other composer.  I thought the lines of the chorale could do with just a little more phrasing to separate them from each other.  The registrations used was very appealing.

‘Sei Gegrüsset, Jesu Gütig’ is part of a much larger work, with 11 variations in total.

Janet Gibbs had a most pleasing choice of stops for the first variation; she showed this organ off well.  The second variation was much more full-bodied, with registration being closer to full organ, including more reed stops.  The varying moods were conveyed tellingly.

The wonderful Fantasia in G is in three distinct parts.  The lively opening section’s arpeggios could sound like a five-finger exercise, but with the right tempo and registration, as here, it is more like a spirited dance.  The second section I found a little too fast (it is marked ‘Grave’ in my Novello edition), but was very satisfying nonetheless.  The third section is difficult, but was brilliantly executed.

Mendelssohn wrote a number of fairly large-scale organ works, not all of which I find appealing.  But this Sonata, in the hands of Janet Gibbs, and on this organ, was different, and enjoyable.  She introduced it by saying that ‘You can’t get better than Bach’.  No-one knew that better than Mendelssohn, Bach’s great nineteenth-century rediscoverer.

Bach would surely have approved of his treatment of the Chorale.  Here, the separated notes in the pedal part were very skilfully managed.  The brilliant fugue was totally controlled, and enthralling, with the melody in the pedals while the hands performed scintillating arpeggios on the manuals.  The quiet final section sounded rather like the worst of nineteenth-century sentimentality by comparison with what had gone before.  A few pipes slightly out of tune did not help.  The change in tonality and ambience was not the fault of the registration; I’m sure Mendelssohn would have approved of that.

Christopher Tambling is an Englishman, Director of Music at Downside College in England.  Trumpet Tune was a delightful little piece, reminiscent of Jeremiah Clarke, and of the well-known Tuba Tune by New Zealand-born C.S. Lang who spent his career in England.  The second piece was a robust march in a traditional style.  The use of a 2-foot stop added piquancy, as did reeds, to a very effective piece of music, appropriate for finishing the recital.

Throughout the recital, Janet Gibbs’s foot-work was impeccable, and the use of the swell pedal was always judicious, never showy.  A few fluffs elsewhere did not spoil the enjoyment of a memorable recital. This was organ-playing of a very high standard indeed, and there was a good-sized audience to hear it, which is often not the case at organ recitals.


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