Heroic welcome for the new digital organ in St Paul’s Cathedral

Cathedral Festival for the digital organ

Joseph Nolan, organ

Bach,: Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582
Franck: Prelude, Fugue and Variation
Marcel Dupré: Variations sur un Noël
Widor: Symphonie V in F minor, Op.42 no.1

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Friday, 12 August 2018, 7:30 pm

To celebrate the inauguration of its new Viscount Regent Classic digital organ, the Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul has put on an Organ Festival.  The guest organist, Dr Joseph Nolan, is a British organist, formerly organist at the Chapels Royal in London (involving numbers of different organs, including one at Buckingham Palace), but since 2008, Organist and Master of Music at St. George’s Cathedral in Perth, Western Australia.

Probably due to a competing concert and to what was the coldest evening in Wellington all year, the audience was rather smaller than one would have expected.  A beautifully produced programme booklet was provided, for this recital and the next evening’s choral concert.  Magnificent photos of the organ console were on front and back of the booklet.  Inside, all information and full texts and translations for the choral items were given, in an easily-read typeface (as always when Michael Stewart has a hand in things).

The organ’s specifications and other details were printed in the programme.  There are 38 speaker cabinets, mainly housed (in rather ugly fashion) in the former main pipe chamber above the chancel, opposite the position of the late lamented pipe organ’s console.  A small number of speakers are in two other locations to the right and left, facing into the church.   The console has four manuals: Great, Swell, Choir and Solo, plus Pedal.  The organ was built by the Viscount company in England, with a custom-built console made by a Devon company.  The keys are wooden, so do not look white like the keyboards we are accustomed to.  All details were devised by Michael Stewart and Richard Apperley, Organist and Director of Music, and Assistant Director of Music respectively, at the Cathedral.

With twenty speaking stops for the pedals and only a small number fewer for each of the manuals, this is a large organ.  Swell, Choir and Solo are all shown as being ‘enclosed’.  On a pipe organ this would mean the relevant manuals’ pipes are enclosed in boxes, which can be opened or closed by the use of special foot pedals, to achieve softer or louder sounds. Of course, there are no pipes and no boxes with this organ, but the same effects can be achieved.  Pistons (which bring out various pre-set combinations of stops, when pressed) number over thirty thumb pistons, and over twenty toe pistons, which were of a different design from usual, the rubber (or similar) flat tops making it less likely that a foot would slip off them.

The organ resonated well in the building, though not having the same sort of resonance as a pipe organ.  I found the clarity somewhat less compared with the old  instrument, and the distinctive sounds of, for example, flute, oboe or diapason stops less, well, distinctive.

For this recital, the organ console was moved to a position below the chancel, but at the centre, so that the audience could readily see Dr Nolan in action.  For the choral concert on Saturday it was moved to its usual position, to the right.

Bach’s towering Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor was written while he was still quite a young man, when there were few demands for him to write a constant flow of church music, compared with the situation during his later years in Leipzig.

The Passacaglia consists of twenty variations on a theme, which is initially stated solely on pedals, the variations being sustained throughout by a repetition of the pedal part (or ostinato), which then becomes the main theme of the double fugue that follows.

When the manuals entered, the registration was not so hefty as to blot out the strong pedals.  The melody eventually moved from pedals to the Great manual, later to the Choir, each move bringing forth a different array of sounds.  Some may say that was not an ‘authentic’ performance, but it did demonstrate the organ’s capabilities.  The ending was fast, fantastic, and loud!

Not to mention the capabilities of Dr Nolan, whose facility at romping around the manuals and the pedal board was nothing short of astonishing.  There were lovely ripples from the Choir organ, returns to stentorian pedals, more stops added – but the result was never too thick. The elaborate, lengthy work was thrillingly executed by Dr Nolan, displaying not only his great ability but also the scope, resonance and fine quality of the organ.

Such is the veneration of Bach, Telemann, Buxtehude and others of the North German school, and the recordings we hear of English organs, many music-lovers may not realise the sheer plethora of cathedrals, and thus cathedral organs, in France.  A tour two years ago took me to some of these in southern France.  So it is not surprising that there are  many works written by French composers for the instrument.  Saint-Saëns and Poulenc are two eminent composers; each has written a major symphonic work for orchestra and organ, which are probably the only ones performed regularly by a standard symphony orchestra, with soloist.  Thus the remainder of the programme consisted of three works by French composers – as indeed was the encore..

Despite Franck not being one of my favourite composers, I find his Prelude, Fugue and Variation delightful, especially the simple but beautiful opening of the Prelude. Mellow tones on the Swell underpinned the melody, the latter played on the Choir organ.  Nolan employed less rubato than one often hears in performances of this work  The fugue utilised a bigger and heavier sound palette on the Great.  It was amusing to see the organist conducting himself with one hand while playing the Variation with the other.  Here again, nimble foot-work was remarkable.

A variety of attractive registrations were utilised on Swell and Great; the variations on the charming melody were enhanced by judicious stop choices.

I thought some of Nolan’s hand movements while playing were somewhat pianistic but that did not seem to affect the result .  Maybe he caught them from one of his teachers: New Zealand-born Gillian Weir, who has the same tendency.  His other principal teacher was the eminent Frenchwoman, Marie-Claire Alain.

The next work was by Marcel Dupré; his Variations are enchanting, based on a traditional French carol.  The melody was illuminated all over the organ. with delightful accompaniments.    Nolan exhibited amazing finger-work on the Great, especially in one very excitable variation.  This illustrated how responsive the keyboards are on this instrument.

The melody changed key, thus retaining the piece’s interest.  Dupré obviously had a great musical imagination; some of the variations were very quirky.  I was aware of distribution of sounds around the building; a fast, loud variation was definitely emanating from further to my left than others.  This was a brilliant, virtuoso performance.

Widor’s Toccata, the final movement of the symphony played as the last item on the programme, has had almost pop status for many years.  Written in 1870, the Symphonie is a massive work in more ways than one.  It has five movements, varying from the allegro vivace first movement to an adagio fourth movement, followed by the Toccata, which returns the work to a fast tempo.

The first movement was quite restrained and matter-of-fact, contrasting sounds from the Great and the Swell.  Some wonderful effects were achieved, especially on the Choir and Swell manuals, as the movement progressed – at speed!  The ending was quite rambunctious.  The second movement, allegro cantabile, produced an attractive singing melody from the Swell organ,  with an accompaniment below on the Great.  Another section consisted of an accompanied flute melody.  Nolan was again a magician on both manuals and pedals.

The andantino third movement began with pedals only.  The music moved to the Solo manual and then came a hymn-like pronouncement on the Great.  The pedal work involved using two feet on the go at once, an octave apart.  Full Great organ ensued.  Sometimes the sound was a bit muddy, such as you would not get from a pipe organ.  However, it has to be said that most of the time one was not aware that it was a digital organ.  The quiet ending of this movement led to the quiet adagio fourth movement’s chorale-like opening, with the ‘box closed’.  The dynamics went down to a triple piano softness.  I found the switch from ‘closed’ to ‘open’ a little too obvious.

Then the famous Toccata, with all its fire and sparkle, switching between manuals.  It made a very effective finale.  When the principal melody was being played on the pedals, it required toes and heels of both feet.  The last phrase was fortississimo!

The encore, quite lengthy, was the Finale of a Louis Vierne organ symphony, which showed off a lot of the organ’s range of sounds.  Some of the playing, here and elsewhere  was, I felt, too fast; the audience could not always appreciate all the subtlety and sounds of the fast figures in the music.

Nevertheless, this was a superb and dramatic recital, played with bravura and virtuosity.  It did the new instrument proud.


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