Douglas Mews at the organ – St.John’s, Willis St

St.John’s, Willis St. Organ Concerts presents:
Organ recital by Douglas Mews

Handel: Concerto in G minor Op.4 no.3 (arranged for organ solo)
Vierne: Arabesque; Cathédrales
Bach:   Sonata C minor, BWV 526 / Chorale Prelude: O Mensch bewein’ dein sunde gross, BWV 402
Prelude and Fugue in E flat, BWV 552

Douglas Mews (organ)
St John’s, Willis Street

Sunday, 14 September 2014, 2.30pm

St. John’s Church is hosting three organ recitals this month, on Sunday afternoons, of which this was the first.  They celebrate National Organ Month, and also are a vehicle for raising money for the upkeep of the fine Lewis organ at St. John’s.

Unfortunately, on this Sunday and the next, there are numerous competing concerts.  Thus, a rather small audience was little reward for the work that had gone into preparing the recital.

The programme opened with a Handel organ concerto, arranged to be played on organ only.  While I found the first movement (adagio) a little bland, and there were a few fluffed notes in the allegro second, throughout the work Douglas Mews made lovely use of solo stops.  I would have liked a little more detachment of repeated notes.  The third movement was a fine adagio, and the jaunty finale was a happy eompletion of the work.

In his remarks to the audience, Douglas pointed up the fact that an early organist at St. John’s was Maughan Barnett, who was involved in many musical activities in Wellington before he moved to Auckland.  He was the first Wellington City Organist; Douglas himself was the last.  The position is currently in abeyance; the Town Hall organ is in storage while the hall is closed pending earthquake strengthening.  (As one who was emerging from that building at the time of Wellington’s worst earthquake in recent years, I am all for it being strengthened!)

Two short pieces by Louis Vierne proved to be most effective.  The first featured a most attractive contrasting solo stop for the melody line.  The second was perhaps inspired by Notre Dame in Paris, where Vierne was organist for 37 years.  The piece was a complete contrast to the light delicacy and high pitch of Arabesque.  Here, there was grandeur, following an opening on reeds.  I could imagine the tolling of cathedral bells in some sections of the piece.  It contrasted mellow tones with almost harsh, loud chords.  Later, there were gentle, dulcet tones and rather more conventional harmony.

Apparently Barnett played all of the Bach organ music that was available; this was unusual at the time: 1895-1913 being the years he was in Wellington.  This information acted as a link to the playing of Trio Sonata in C minor, BWV 526.  These sonatas are thought to have been written for Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedmann to use for practising keyboard technique. But they are in no way tedious exercises, being full of delights; the clarity of the three parts, their thematic development, and their artistic unity are among them.

The vivace first movement introduced charming flute sounds, but the pedal part sounded woofy compared with the upper parts, in fact this was a characteristic elsewhere in the recital also.  In the largo second movement I felt rather more phrasing was required.  The allegro finale had the three parts all very clear and the contrasting registrations between the two upper parts were very fine.

Bach’s sublime Passiontide chorale prelude (for which the chorale words were printed in the programme, in Catherine Winkworth’s translation – coincidentally, in Radio NZ’s ‘Hymns on Sunday Morning’ that morning, she and other translators of hymns from other languages were featured.  I did not particularly like the rather buzzy reed stop used for the melody line, and I would have preferred more even quavers, and more lift between repeated notes.  Yet the expressiveness of the piece could not fail to impress.

The last item was a considerable tour de force.  The opening Prelude and the closing Fugue of Bach’s Clavierübung are often coupled together, and in English tend to be called the “St. Anne” Prelude and Fugue, because of the likeness of the fugue’s melody to the tune of that name, set to the well-known hymn ‘O God, our help in ages past’.

The fast opening of the prelude has a strong dotted rhythm, well emphasised by Mews.  The fugue melody needed more phrasing, to my mind – as though it were being sung.  Nevertheless, Douglas Mews brought off this demanding fugue, with its three separate sections (thought, with other features of the work, to represent the Trinity).

The demanding programme brought to the fore many features of the St. John’s organ, and demonstrated a range of great music for the instrument, ably performed.

The organ recital next Sunday at the same time will be by Kevin Duggan, visiting from Denmark, and the following week Dianne Halliday, organist and director of music at St. Peter’s Anglican Church, also in Willis Street, will perform, along with Chelsea Whitfield.

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