Polish organist with German baroque and French romantic at St Peter’s

Organ works by Buxtehude, J.S. Bach and Guilmant

Gedymin Grubba

St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Willis Street

Sunday, 4 November 2012, 3pm

When Polish organist Gedymin Grubba was here almost exactly two years ago, he played the relatively small baroque-style organ at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.   How very different to play on the much larger, recently-restored William Hill organ at St. Peter’s!  Despite that, most of this programme was from the baroque era.

This time, more of the music was familiar to me, but I find some of the remarks I made in my review of that recital still apply.

The opening work was one of my favourites: J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, BWV 552.  It has a thrilling opening, and episodes of different character in both movements.  The Fugue is known in English as the ‘St. Anne’ because the  first theme resembles the St. Anne hymn tune used for ‘O God, our help in ages past’, a hymn that would have been unknown to Bach.  Walter Emery, in the Preface to my Novello edition of the music states ‘…the subject was a commonplace…’ and quotes the titles of contemporary fugues with similar themes.  ‘I record these resemblances as curiosities…’  Grubba chose a bold registration for this, but I found it had rather a buzzy overlay.

Rather than agreeing with the remark in my previous review, that the organist played “with an appropriately detached technique for this period of music”, I found this time the amount of lift, or detachment between notes and chords, too much – particularly in the fugue.  It broke up the line of the theme; the “singers” had to breathe far too often.  Maintaining a more legato line for the theme would have made the detached quavers in the final section of the fugue even more dramatic.

I would have liked a different registration for the fugue, rather than the same stops as were used for the prelude; this would have given more clarity to the parts.  It was also very slow for a chorale style of theme and its development – it became rather ponderous.

The Buxtehude chorale prelude Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist used flutes to accompany the melody on a reed stop (I think!), and this was very effective, but again, I found there were too many lifts in the melody line, to the extent that it became irritating. The line of the chorale melody was not always maintained, and the rhythm was jerky at times.  There needs to be phrasing, as in a sung or danced piece of music.  It is appropriate to separate repeated notes, but the first of the notes needs a little more time value than was often given here, otherwise the music sounds breathless, and the style interferes with the musical line.

Buxtehude’s Passacaglia in D minor found the pedal rather loud.  Yes, that is where the Passacaglia theme is to be found, as a ground bass, but I think we would still have heard it if played a little more lightly.  Again, to me the lifts were too long.  There is a style of playing baroque organ music where the notes are played more-or-less staccato, but these lifts were longer than that, and came every few notes through much (not all) of the music.

The Bach Prelude in B minor was not one I knew.   The 8ft., 4ft., 2ft. registration was most attractive, and the pedal part had a good sound.  In this piece there was more continuity – more legato playing.

The third in a group of three chorale preludes by Bach on Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr’ received a delicious registration, the 2ft. stop being used for the upper part, and a very contrasting registration for the left hand.  I enjoyed this piece very much; there was a lovely contrast between the three parts, yet the balance was maintained.

The last of the baroque items was Bach’s wonderful Fantasia in G minor, another of my favourites.  The dancing semi-quavers of the first section were very fast, so that they were not always distinct from each other, while the middle section, marked Grave was too fast and bouncy, losing its grave grandeur.  Again, too many separated notes spoiled the musical line.  The first chord in each couplet was not given enough value – and the buzzy sound returned with the registration used.  The final section, with its demi-semi-quaver triplets was beautifully played, with a lovely, registration.

The final work was the Scherzo from Guilmant’s Organ Symphony no.5, also played in a very detached manner, though there was phrasing, too.  The work contains some attractive melodies, but the scherzo rhythm was rather lost at times because of the nature of the playing.

As an encore, Grubba played from memory a showy march of his own composition, on full organ with reeds.

The printed programme listed the composers (with dates) and the titles and other details of the works, but there were no programme notes; additional proofreading would have been advantageous for both the titles of works and the notes about the performer.



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