Classical concert “crowding-out” on Sunday afternoons

Bach: Prelude and Fugue in E minor BWV 533

Partita divers sopra Ach, was soll ich Sünder machen BWV 770

Douglas Mews senior: Partita on the Ascension Hymn Salutis Humanae Sator

Bach: Chorale Prelude Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr BWV 662

Fantasia and Fugue in G minor BWV 542

Douglas Mews (organ)

St Mary of the Angels Church

30 September 2012, 2.30pm

Back when the Wellington Chamber Music Society proposed having a series of concerts on Sunday afternoons, nearly thirty years ago, a senior person within the Music Federation (as Chamber Music New Zealand was named then) predicted it wouldn’t work; Sunday concerts had been tried and weren’t well supported.  Now, not only is the WCMS series still going, but Sunday afternoons have become almost de rigeur for classical concerts.  Sunday 30 September boasted no fewer than six of them in Wellington and the Hutt Valley.

It is impossible for Middle-C to review all of these, but worse is the fact that to some extent they rely on the same audience.  Not only will audience numbers, and therefore income, be affected by this duplication (or sextuplication?), but would-be audience members are unable to derive enjoyment and pleasure from hearing all the music they would like to hear.   Some kind of collaboration needs to take place to ensure that such doubling up (I hesitate to put a six-related noun to that!) is kept to a minimum, and more use is made of week-nights – maybe early evening concerts.

It was great to hear the organ at St. Mary of the Angels, originally designed and played by the late Maxwell Fernie, my much-esteemed organ teacher.  Especially it was good to hear the great J.S. Bach, who was not only loved so well by Fernie, but the love of whose music he imparted to me and many others.  Douglas Mews is another master of the organ, and he gave the playing of Bach spirit and life.

The opening work featured a pedal part with coupling from the manuals, and a grand fugue.  The Partita that followed comprised ten variations on a choral melody.  As the programme note stated, this showed ‘a great variety in their treatment of the chorale melody’.  The simple chorale in Bach’s hands gave rise to extraordinary contrasts within as well as between variations.

The first was in two parts with some decoration, a positive mood and delicate treatment; it dealt with God’s compassion and mercy (the translated words of four chorale verses were printed in the programme, but it was not clear exactly which words related to which of the ten variations).  The second variation introduce mixture stops, giving a piquancy to the music. The third was a gorgeous piece, with a fairly fast tempo, a running rhythm and flute registration.

Number four introduced reed stops.  It gave a firm statement of the chorale, with a running lower part.  Five was another flute-dominated variation; six was in more of a grand organ style, somewhat portentous.    No. 7 featured flutes again, all in the treble, with little runs.  The next variation was in a different mood, beginning with a low flute introduction, and then a solemn diapason sound in the treble response.  There were some complex figures, including trills and mordents.

It was back to 8, 4 and 2 foot pipes for the penultimate variation, contrasted with sections on flutes; the tenth had flutes trilling on both manuals, perhaps illustrating the final words of the chorale “My salvation is assured for eternity.’  There were arpeggios and runs, with contrasts back and forth.  This was the longest of the variations and showed the greatest variety, appropriately for the ending one.

The performance was full of interest, and gave a marvellous demonstration of the abilities of the composer – and of the organist, and the instrument.

Douglas Mews’s father was an organist, composer, and Associate Professor of Music at the University of Auckland.  I well remember his radio broadcasts on matters musical, in which he spoke in his lovely Newfoundland accent on topics which he demonstrated at the piano, in a lively yet intimate style, almost as if he were sitting in one’s own room.

His Partita, written in 1987, takes a plainsong tune and varies and decorates it for the four separate verses of the hymn; the title translates ‘O Thou who man’s Redeemer art’.  The music began with high notes and chords, while subterranean pedals grumbled intermittently below.  Then there was a statement of the hymn on one manual, unaccompanied.   This was followed by a statement using reed stops, embellished with a simple, low accompaniment that featured interesting chords and again, a single line providing the decorated melody.  Unusual harmonies were created.

The second verse had an unexpectedly high treble variation, and delicious broken chords, followed by passages using reed stops.  Number three started with the melody at the octave, followed by strong chords using several ranks of pipes.  There were fast passages for both manuals and pedals, fading away to distant high notes.  The music for the fourth voice was played on diapasons, starting with a single unaccompanied line, then the melody was accompanied by dark, mysterious chords.  The work ended with a very high note together with a very low one.  The work featured very dramatic alternations between soft and loud passages.

Back to Bach, and one of his several settings of the chorale ‘Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr’.  Though not the longest of the composer’s chorale preludes on this theme, BWV 662 is perhaps the most complex.  The treatment of the melody, and its ornamentation, proved to be quite beautiful.  There was considerable use of coupled ranks in the melody line.  However, I felt that the registration employed did not allow the melody quite sufficient space of its own, i.e. the accompaniment was a little heavy, although there are important passages to be heard in the accompanying parts.

The final work was a real classic showpiece of Bach’s oevre.  It is grand and satisfying.  Douglas Mews produced a greater range of dynamic contrasts than some organists do in this Fantasia and Fugue.  The fast passages were really fast, and there were thundering pedals in the Fantasia, a movement whose counterpoint is worked out in quite an astonishing way.  Then the bright, fast fugue. Its theme, repeated in all parts, has been known to students as ‘O Ebenezer Prout [an English music scholar, analyst and theoretician of the nineteenth century] you are a funny man’.  Among the fugue’s many complications is the trilling in the right hand while the left hand and feet carry on with other material.  This made a sensational ending to the fugue, and to the recital.

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