Douglas Mews makes most of St Andrew’s chamber organ’s limitations in fine Bach performances

Clavier works by J. S. Bach

Douglas Mews (chamber organ)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 12 April 2015, 12.15pm

As Douglas Mews explained to the audience, Bach wrote many pieces for keyboard that could be played in the domestic setting.  This meant they were probably most often heard in his day and after on the harpsichord, but the clavichord, chamber organ and piano would all have been used.  These works do not come under the umbrella of the 330th birthday celebration at Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul, where on Friday lunchtimes all Bach’s organ works are being performed by Michael Stewart and Richard Apperley.

The programme comprised four of the 15 Sinfonias (BWV 794-797), and four Preludes and Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book One.  These were written 1722-23 when Bach was in Cöthen.  The final work, the Concerto in D minor based on an oboe concerto was written much earlier, when Bach was living and working in Weimar.

Unfortunately, other responsibilities mean I was late for the concert, and since the Sinfonias were played continuously and are quite short, I only heard the last of them.  However, I was immediately struck by the lovely ‘chuffy’ sound of the chamber organ playing these works.  This was the one in G minor, the others played were in F major, F minor, and G major.

The Preludes and Fugues were those in F# major, F# minor, G major and G minor, BWV 858-861.  The first key contain 6 sharps!!  Playing these takes a lot of mental and digital concentration.  The first, particularly, was played delicately and lovingly; Mews said that this key produced a serene sound, and so it proved, despite the fine bouncy rhythms.  This first Prelude was played on flutes, including the 15th (2-foot) stop.  All were played sequentially, giving extra point to the gorgeous changes of registration.

None of the works used pedals, since most of the instruments most likely to have played them would not have them, though the chamber organ at St. Andrew’s does.  Nevertheless, Mews amply demonstrated what this organ can do.

The stunning counterpoint of these pieces is full of interest, and the same applies to Bach’s concerto in D minor (BWV 974) based on Alessandro Marcello’s oboe concerto.  The Italian composer was a contemporary of Bach’s – 1673-1747.  The concerto is familiar; as Mews said, Marcello’s original is played on the radio from time to time, and despite the desire of baroque composers, by and large, to have the performers create ornamentations more-or-less spontaneously, usually oboists performing the Marcello use Bach’s suggested ornamentations for the single manual organ!

The registration employed in the concerto had less ‘chuff’ than that in the earlier Bach pieces, and thus sounded appropriately more orchestral.  The first movement was marked andante e spiccato, and spiccato it certainly was, followed by an adagio, then finally a very finger-fast presto movement.

This organ has very few stops, yet Douglas Mews managed to mix and match what was there to make effective differences between the various Preludes and Fugues, and between the movements of the concerto.

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