Organ recital at St.Peter’s on Willis – musical and ambient enchantment

St.Peter’s Church on Willis, Wellington

Spring Organ Concert Series

Ian Webb (organ)


Sunday, 14th October, 2012

What an enchanting place in which to listen to music, I thought, while waiting and looking around from my pew-seat in St.Peter’s Church on Willis St. in Wellington. My reactions were undoubtedly fuelled by the afternoon’s sunbeams, whose wan and wintry outside effect somehow took on a transcendental quality, refracted through the west-facing windows of the church, immediately behind the congregation. The light came streaming in, bathing the whole of the space in front of the nave with a kind of refulgent glow, suggesting a kind of illumination from within as much as from without.

This was an effect I well remembered from a radiant performance of the Mozart Requiem given by the Bach Choir in this same church earlier in the year. And although there were fewer performers (one, in fact) this time round, the ambient light was still working its magic on the spaces and atmospheres, warming the hues and tones of the organ pipes and the surrounding structures.

It made for a kind of hushed expectation about the occasion, a performance from British organist Ian Webb, temporarily living and working in New Zealand not primarily as a musician but as a cardiologist at Wellington Hospital. He was, before leaving Britain, Organ Scholar and Director of Music at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.His activities in Britain indicate the extent of his skill as an organist, and what we heard him play this afternoon confirmed that status.

He began his recital with the Fantasia in G Minor BWV 542 by JS Bach, a performance which had plenty of “grunt” at the beginning, and then relaxed, richly and lyrically, throughout the quieter, more meditative sections. The instrument seemed to have plenty of power as required, without overwhelming, the reverberation having a blooming rather than a confused and muddying effect. Even in quicker, complex contrapuntal passages, the clarity of the player’s figurations was astonishing.

After talking a little about the remaining items on his program Ian Webb then gave us Vierne’s  Berceuse, subtitled “Pieces in free style”), his registrations creating a world of feeling away from Bach’s teutonic textures. The sound wasn’t unlike a wheezy harmonium, so very affecting and nostalgic (obviously tapping into my early memories of listening to my mother play our church’s organ). The textures here were beautiful, piquant and flavorsome, spare and sharply-focused, never weighty – for some reason I thought, “so very Catholic”, which may have been an heretical thought to have in an Anglican Church! Vierne’s “lullaby” theme lent itself to considerable evocation, with a withdrawn section towards the end redolent of oncoming sleep.

Johann Sebastian “Mighty Bach” (as Dylan Thomas’s Organ Morgan called him) returned with the well-known chorale Wachet auf, ruf ins die Stimme BWV 645, the familiar tune underscored with a deep-throated pedal accompaniment, the playing refreshingly sprightly rather than lugubrious, with the counter-chorale making its appearance on a divertingly raspy reed – all very physical and agile and serene at one and the same time.

I didn’t know very much about Jehan Alain, whose Litanies Ian Webb next played – the organist emphasized in his introduction Alain’s “Catholicity” and the composer’s attitude to prayer as a “burst of energy”. The forthright opening bore out the idea of a kind of irruption, the ensuing Allegro celebratory and festive, with a ear-catching “echo” effect, seeming at one stage to bounce and then rebound from the church’s walls. More meditative episodes were after a while broken into by enormous unisons, grand statements of the theme and its variants, bearing out Ian Webb’s description of the piece as “obsessional prayer”. Bach came to the rescue of our finer sensibilities with the following piece, An Wasserflussen Babylon BWV 653, a gentle, lyrical, quietly-meditative piece with wondrously sepulchral pedal notes!

Ian Webb then gave us some music by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, a modest piece with the grand title Variations on “Mein junges Leben hat ein End”, a dignified standard Protestant hymn-tune subjected to piquant changes of mode, registration and rhythm, at one point sounding a little like the “Coventry Carol”. The organist then seemed to literally pull out all the stops for the following piece by Bach to give the grandest possible contrast, the A major Prelude and Fugue BWV 536. The brief Prelude with its swirling toccata-like figures was splendidly realized, and the Fugue dignified and gently-moving at the outset, featuring chirruping piccolo-tones at one point, before gathering increasing girth and energy – Webb’s fingers falling over themselves in excitement at one point, but delivering the pay-off impressively.

I did know that Bach made a famous journey of over a hundred miles on foot to hear Dietrich Buxtehyde play, but Ian Webb assured us that Bach’s journey didn’t include paying court to Buxtehyde’s daughter, who was more than usually homely of appearance. That diverting thought was a secondary consideration to the music we next heard, the Chorale Prelude Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist, one of two Preludes written by the composer, and instantly proclaiming him as a creative force on a different plane to the more limited Sweelinck, the chorale melody ornamented freely and elegantly.

Concluding the recital, Ian Webb chose a piece from the French repertoire, Eugène Gigout’s Grand Choeur Dialogue, another grand, festive and wonderful piece which would, I think, have the effect of drawing the casual listener to further exploration of the French repertoire, especially when presented, as here, with such great flair. Gigout obviously knew how to build tensions within a piece in both predictable and unexpected ways. The music featured gradually tightening antiphonal exchanges between voices, but then would break off from such interactions to lead the ear along more contrapuntal pathways mid-exchange, before reverting suddenly to the give-and-take with heightened energies. I loved the conclusion of the piece – great chords, modulating in all directions, but somehow finding a single note to finish the music on – bravo! – as much for the player, Ian Webb, as for the composer.








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