The two organs on display: St Andrew’s on The Terrace first off in Wellington’s concert series

Jonathan Berkahn – the chamber organ and the main organ

Music by Byrd, Samuel Wesley, Mendelssohn, Edward d’Evry and William Wolstenholme

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 12 February, 12:15 pm

The long-standing (since the 1970s) Wednesday lunchtime concert series from St Andrew’s on The Terrace is back in town: this was the first for 2014. And the rest of the year’s series is mapped out, though not in detail.

Jonathan Berkahn has become a well-known keyboard player in Wellington since studying at Victoria University; following in the footsteps of his teacher Douglas Mews, he plays the organ as well as harpsichord and fortepiano, and he has recently become a choral conductor (The Festival Singers). Here, he gave the church’s two organs an all-too-rare work-out. (I wish these concerts employed the organs more regularly; it seems an awful shame that concerts in churches so rarely put on public display the instrument that has been specifically built for and installed in them).

The programme was a bit unusual, almost wholly devoted to English organ music: the one departure, Mendelssohn, whose organ sonatas were, in any case, written for England.

Berkahn played the first two pieces on the chamber organ, on the right of the sanctuary: a Fantasy by William Byrd, from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, and from the late 18th century composer Samuel Wesley, a Voluntary in C (Op 6 no 2).

The Fantasia emerged as a set of variations that begin in plain, open registers, unadorned, and through four or five successive stages grow in complexity, rhythmic variety, syncopation, brightness, using increasingly rich stops with more reed characteristics; they also accelerated subtly till at the end we got a 1600 equivalent of the Rossini crescendo of round 1820. An enjoyable, thoroughly persuasive performance.

Berkahn’s university thesis was devoted to the music of Samuel Wesley. To clarify: born in 1766 (four years Beethoven’s senior), he was the son of the hymn writer Charles Wesley who was the brother of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism in the early 18th century. Samuel’s son, Samuel Sebastian Wesley (born in 1810, same year as Schumann and Chopin), was also a musician, a noted organist and composer.

Jonathan entertained the audience with a quote from his thesis in which he vividly described Wesley’s eccentric, irresponsible, even criminal nature, and his rejection of Protestantism for Roman Catholicism, to family dismay, as well as his great musical gift.

This Voluntary, in four parts, displayed a post-Handelian quality, but could also have been influenced by Arne and Boyce, as well as by his contribution to the revival of J S Bach. The limited range of the small chamber organ sounded exactly in keeping with the style and Berkahn played with authority, using the organ most skilfully to achieve both clarity and due weight.

The exploration of a composer like Wesley is just another element in discrediting the tedious assertion that Britain produced no major composer between Purcell and Britten (perhaps Elgar).

After speaking briefly about the Mendelssohn sonata, remarking that his organ sonatas were written in response to the suggestion that he write some voluntaries (Berkahn said that he wrote sonatas instead because he didn’t know what a Voluntary was), he walked upstairs to the main organ in the gallery over the west door.

There had been commentaries on earlier pieces from without by pneumatic drills which contributed sporadically to the sounds within, but at the moment when Berkahn raised his hands to the keyboard, the noise stopped. The sonata began with a few loud chords but immediately subsided in the minor key to the hushed introduction to the first movement. The commanding contrast to the modesty of the chamber organ was impressive, and I found myself, a not unwavering advocate of Mendelssohn, becoming quite engrossed in the sophisticated procedures that he pursued, and at Berkahn’s command of the very attractive instrument. It’s not a long piece and that worked in its favour, allowing just enough time to absorb the ideas in the course of their fairly economical development.

Next was a Nocturnette (a new form to me) by one Edward d’Evry (also a new one to me – 1869-1931). Moonlight was the suggested characteristic and though it was hardly a match for Beethoven or Debussy for evocativeness, its brevity was a compensation for its inconsequentiality. But very charmingly played.

Finally, another name that rang only faint bells: William Wolstenholme (1865-1931). There is an imposing list of gifted, blind organists, and he makes probably only a modest contribution to their number. His Finale in B flat was chosen as an arresting close to the recital, but it was more bombast than rapture and I could not escape the feeling that his heart was not in it and that he wished he’d been asked to write an adagio elegiaco or a lacrimosa instead. A French contribution here (say Lefébure-Wély) might have sent us out of church with spirits higher uplifted.

However, in total, this was an admirable recital, a welcome reminder of the riches of the organ repertoire and the many underused instruments (apart from church services) in the city; the high points had really been the Byrd and Wesley on the chamber organ.



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