A thousand years of church music in well chosen programme for voice and organ

‘Today the Lonely Winds’: Sacred music for organ and voice
(St. James’s Church and Wellington Organists Association)

Anonymous items; pieces by Frescobaldi, Monteverdi, St. Bernard of Claivaux, Jacob Regnart, Buxtehude, St Thomas Aquinas and Langlais

Heather Easting (organ), William McElwee (baritone)

St. James’s Church, Lower Hutt

Sunday, 24 April 2016, 3pm

The title puzzled me a little; it was a beautiful day without wind, and the winds of the organ pipes had plenty of company – there were over 70 people present.

It was a very well thought-out programme, revealing thought on how to present it, and which physical positions the baritone should take up. The choice of items obviously involved quite a bit of research. The climax of the recital was Jean Langlais’s organ suite Suite Médiévale en forme de messe basse. The five movements were each based on a piece of liturgical chant that was included in the rest of the programme.

The organ had been wheeled into a position in the centre of the sanctuary, side-on to the audience. This made it possible for the latter to see the organist’s hands and feet in action, and made for better communication between the two performers when they were both involved in items.

The opening antiphon, Asperges me from the 13th century, was intoned by William McElwee most tellingly, out of sight, from the west side of the sanctuary. It was followed by a Frescobaldi Toccata decima on the organ. The organ had a very bright sound, and the piece involved intricate rhythms and ornamentation; a most attractive work. Pedals were used for the final two notes only.

McElwee then sang from the back of the church, and moved slowly forward: Kyrie fons bonitatis, a 10th century piece, in Phrygian, or third, mode. Next was a solo motet by Monteverdi (the programme note said for solo tenor or soprano, but McElwee managed it pretty well): O quam pulchra es, accompanied by organ. The baritone managed the highly ornamented style of music readily. The accompaniment was written for a bass instrument, probably theorbo. Although this meant it was written for the bass end of the range, there was no pedal part.

McElwee followed this with a hymn attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux (12th century): Jesus dulcis memoria, sung unaccompanied as he walked around in the sanctuary, as if processing into church.

A major work on the organ was next: Frescobaldi’s Cento partite sopra passacaglia, from 1637. Whether there were one hundred variations I could not tell, but this quite lengthy work is in three sections. The first was charming, played on flutes. Later, other stops were added – diapasons? But no pedals. The third section was more ornate, and quite long.

Another antiphon: Ubi caritas et amor, the melody possibly from the fourth century was sung initially from a separate room to the right side of the sanctuary (with the door open), and then from the pulpit – very effective. New to me was the name Jacob Regnart (~1540-1599), whose Auf meinen lieben Gott was sung with organ. Wikipedia informs me that he was ‘a Flemish Renaissance composer [who] spent most of his career in Austria and Bohemia, where he wrote both sacred and secular music.’

Next up was one of the major organ composers, Dietrich Buxtehude (~1637-1707). His delightful Chorale Partita is a collection of four dance movements based on the same chorale melody utilised by Regnart. Heather Easting used a different registration for each movement, and the pieces were lively and attractive. Another hymn came from St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Adoro te devote, sung mainly from the chancel steps.

Buxtehude appeared again, with a cantata Herr, Herr wenn ich nur Dich hab. Some of the vocal runs in this quite demanding work were not quite secure, but William McElwee’s tone was very pleasing. This was the first time we heard (and saw) the organist using the pedals.

After an eighth century hymn Christus vincit, a solemn chant used at the coronations of the Holy Roman Emperors sung from the chancel steps, the singer moved off to the west of the sanctuary. In this hymn, as elsewhere, his words were very clear.

Now came the major work in the recital, the Langlais Suite, Op.56 (1947). Skipping the nineteenth century (and most of the eighteenth), we were suddenly confronted with full organ, much pedal work, the use of all three manuals and the Swell pedal in the Prélude (Introit) to the Suite. Particularly telling was the use of the reeds on the upper manual. The second movement, Tiento (Offertory) had the melody played alternately on the pedals and on the Swell manual. Notable also was the use of the tremolo.

Improvisation (Elevation) was the third movement, featuring initially very soft music, but also frequent changes of registration. Méditation (Communion) followed. It had charming running motifs, then a medieval melody on the Great, with a 2-foot stop over the 8-foot. Again, there was considerable change of registration, and much variation, such as the melody being played on the pedals.

The final movement, Acclamations was certainly consistent with its title, being loud and resplendent. There were many brilliant episodes, grandiose themes, and harmonic clashes.

The variety of content, yet with a connected structure, made for a most interesting recital, as did the changes in periods and styles of music. It was not only a demonstration of singer and organist in good form, but also of the excellent organ at St. James’s Church. We had a marvellous conspectus of church music through more than 1,000 years in this well-designed programme.


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