The lyrical and the spectacular from Thomas Gaynor at TGIF Cathedral lunchtime recital

Thomas Gaynor – organ

Bach: Prelude and Fugue in G, BWV 541
Bach: From the Leipzig Chorales: “Schmücke dich”, BWV 654 ; Trio super: “Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend”, BWV 655
Saint-Saëns: Fantaisie in E flat; Danse macabre
Widor: Organ Symphony No 6 – Allegro (1st movement)

Cathedral of St Paul

Friday 27 June, 12:45 pm

This year is the 50th anniversary of the dedication of Wellington’s Anglican Cathedral, and so the concerts staged this year celebrate that.

This particular recital was apparently organised by the late John Morrison, who, among many activities that helped the arts, particularly music, to flourish in Wellington, was chairman of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Wagner Society. Your reviewer, as a member of the society, wants to record that link.

I arrived as Gaynor was about four minutes into the Bach Prelude and Fugue, the sounds thrilling about the great space of the cathedral. I’d missed the Prelude but the fugue was proceeding with energy and, given the great reverberant cathedral, was emerging with as much clarity as was consistent with the character of dense contrapuntal music and the need for it to resound in a way the echoed what Bach saw as life’s enigmatic meaning. There was an elasticity in the tempo and a familiarity with the capacities of the organ illuminated the music through well contrasted registrations.

Two pieces from what are known as the Leipzig Chorales followed: they are among the relatively few purely organ compositions written at Leipzig, BWV 651 – 668. “Schmücke dich” (‘Deck thyself’), a beautifully calm piece in which Gaynor played the prominent chorale melody on a distinct stop in sharp contrast with the comforting, weaving, quaver accompaniment. And the ‘Trio Super’ “Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend” (‘Lord Jesus, turn to us’) followed without a break. I can find no explanation of the term Trio Super; its character was very similar to the preceding piece with the vocal line played, again, on a more prominent stop than the accompaniment (not being an organ expert, just a lover of the instrument, I hesitate to guess at the names or ranks of the myriad stops).  It was joyous and lively, moving colourfully through a number of keys.

In some ways the leap of 150 years or so from Bach to Saint-Saëns’s seemed less remarkable than the dates might have suggested; a commentary on Bach’s sophistication rather than any conservatism in Saint-Saëns. His Fantaisie in E flat is one of his earliest works (1857, age 22), evidently before he had developed any particular melodic individuality; after an unobtrusive opening, it struck out bold and fluent, demanding of the player plenty of virtuosity and Gaynor’s employing of a colourful range of stops allowed detail to be heard clearly.

Then came the most spectacular piece on the programme – the very popular Danse Macabre which I’d never heard played on the organ before. It’s had several incarnations: it began as a setting of a poem by Henri Cazalis with piano accompaniment, then came the orchestral tone-poem, with a violin replacing the vocal line; it was transcribed for piano, famously by Horowitz, and the standard organ version is by Edwin Lemare. Lemare’s arrangement exploited the organ’s most flamboyant characteristics and the organist’s skills and flair: it called for the most unusual individual stops and combinations thereof, re-creating the spooky effects, the dark rushes of all-stops-out of the climactic crescendo. In fact, the organ version seemed to capture the unearthly, dehumanised feeling of the piece even more dramatically than is possible with the orchestra, and Gaynor lost no opportunity to overwhelm us.

Charles-Marie Widor was ten years younger than Saint-Saëns, and so impressed the latter that he appointed Widor his assistant at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, age 24, in 1869, and the next year lobbied for his appointment to St Sulpice, in which the famous organ-builders, Cavaillé-Coll, had built their most spectacular organ; Widor was there till 1933.

The Toccata from his Fifth Symphony is his most famous piece. But here we had the welcome chance to hear something from another symphony, the first movement of the 6th. Quite a lot of rhetorical writing, clamorous flourishes, hectic turbulence, then arresting chorale-like passages, all adorned in authentic registrations that illuminated the intriguing contrapuntal writing and the variety of tones and colours that are there to be enjoyed.

Gaynor will spend the northern summer at courses in France and Germany before returning to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester for further post-graduate studies. Quite a large audience heard this recital and will have been highly impressed both by his committed and virtuosic playing and the chance to hear the wonderful resources of the organ being fully extended.

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