Chris Hainsworth – “Perfection of Sound” on the Fernie organ at St.Mary of the Angels


A book-prelaunch celebration – “The Perfection of Sound” – the story of the “Fernie Organ” at St.Mary of the Angels Church, Wellington

Music by Franck, Chaminade, Quef, Torres, Bonnet, JS Bach, Gounod, Debussy, Vierne, Lefebure-Wely, Mine, Widor

Chris Hainsworth playing the organ at St.Mary of the Angels Church,
Boulcott St., Wellington

Friday, 15th June, 2018

This, of course, was a concert with a difference, being the occasion of a book pre-launch, though regarding the actual music performed, perhaps to a less idiosyncratic extent for those who, unlike myself, have previously attended one or more of organist Chris Hainsworth’s recitals. Hainsworth has, on previous occasions at the St.Mary of the Angels Church organ, given presentations of a somewhat less-than-highbrow nature, partly due to his well-documented philosophy of avoiding solemnity in his programmes and countering passivity amongst his audiences! – see two previous “Middle C” reviews of the organist’s recitals,  one from 2013 – and the other from 2009 –

Perhaps the humour was rather less overtly-expressed this time round, the programme contents themselves at first giving little outward cause for eyebrow-raising, sorting themselves dutifully into theme-groups such as the opening “A Suite of Carols for Midwinter”. I did wonder how Hainsworth then came to characterise a pairing of a Serenade by Charles Gounod and an arrangement of Debussy’s much-played “La fille aux cheveux de lin” as “A Baptism and a Funeral” – (shades of Ravel’s “Pavane pour une Infante defunte” perhaps?)

However, this mystery paled into insignificance when compared with the organist’s wonderful title for his last bracket of pieces – “A Fake New Symphony”. My Middle C colleague, Rosemary Collier, with whom I was sitting, leaned over and commented – “Well, he’s come up trumps with this one!” Four diverse pieces from different composers’ organ symphonies were followed by an improvisation-finale in the best virtuoso-composer tradition, one based on “Personent Hodie” a Christmas Carol originating from Scandinavia in the Middle Ages.

Obviously a lot of thought had gone into Hainsworth’s choices of music, each piece played during the evening having some kind of connection with the man to whom the organ in St.Mary of the Angels’ Church owes its unique existence, distinctiveness and reputation, organist, choirmaster and visionary, Maxwell Fernie (1910-1999). However, it was some time before the actual musical side of things got going, as part of the evening’s business was to officially announce the projected appearance of a book, “The Perfection of Sound” – the history of the St.Mary’s organ with all the correspondence between Max, the organ builder, the pipe makers and the parish priest.

The Parish Priest of St.Mary’s Church, Father Kevin Conroy SM, welcomed what was a goodly Friday evening audience to the concert, before inviting James Young, the current organist at the church, to introduce a number of speakers with something to tell us regarding their association with Max Fernie, with the organ, and/or with the forthcoming book, to be published by Steele Roberts at the year’s end.

It fell to Roger Steele to begin by telling us about the book project and enjoining those present to avail themselves of the chance to gain first-hand knowledge of the organ’s genesis in its present form. After Fernie’s widow, Greta inherited all her husband’s papers and the correspondence associated with the organ’s rebuilding, she thought such detailed documentation would constitute a unique story if gathered together and edited to make a book. Alan Simpson, who had been a pupil of Max’s and was also interested in technical aspects of organ specifications, edited the bulk of the material, including correspondence and interviews; while another former student Ros Johnston drew from a 1996 interview with Max by journalist Anna Smith, writing a substantial introduction to the correspondence in the context of Max’s career. The whole will be curated by Roger Steele for eventual publication.

Two further speakers were firstly John Hargraves, an organ-builder and director of the South Island Organ Company, who worked with Fernie from 1979 on the organ’s completion and subsequent refurbishments. He elaborated on Max’s insistence at developing specific tonal characteristics in the organ, adding a reminiscence of his involvement with Max in the 1985 restoration of the Wellington Town Hall organ. The final address came from Elizabeth Kerr, arts administrator, who talked about her experiences of Max as a teacher, with whom she had singing lessons as a chorister and a soloist, and as a “compelling” interpreter and conductor of the music he loved.

Introductions, documentations and reminiscences then made way for the sounds of the organ in question, Chris Hainsworth duly welcomed and introduced, and beginning his concert with music by Cesar Franck, a “Grand Choeur”. This was stirring stuff commencing with the “Noel” tune, grand and imposing, and continuing with a sprightly march with lots of dotted rhythms, the music employing a variety of timbres and building up to a series of contrasts between grandeur and energetic excitement to great effect.

A complete contrast in mood was wrought by Cecile Chaminade’s beautiful and nostalgic “Pastorale pour la Nuit de Noel”, gentle dotted rhythms and mellifluous tones contrasting with more plaintive reed-like sounds at the end. It made a fine contrast with little-known composer Charles Quef’s “Noel Parisien” with its rattling toccata-like passages and celebratory themes.

Hainsworth’s selection certainly played up the contrasts, with Eduardo Torres’s “Lullaby for the Holy Infant” again applying balm to our stimulated sensibilities with appropriately soothing and utterly charming “piping” timbres, a kind of “trio” section affording some contrasts of texture before returning to the opening. The suite’s finale was Joseph Bonnet’s “Rhapsodie Catalane”, music that brought out a pronounced virtuosic element, specifically with the use of the pedals, whole cadenzas in fact! After the relatively restrained music we’d heard thus far, this piece seemed to open up the instrument’s latent power and brilliance to spectacular effect, the pedal sounds almost seismic in their visceral impact. Based on two Catalan carols, the music’s second section featured even more spectacular pedal virtuosity in places which, when the hands joined in, produced easily the grandest sounds of the evening thus far.

Respite, if needed, from these all-out expressions of grandeur was given by the music of JS Bach, in the form of two Chorale Preludes, the first being the beatific, timeless-sounding  “Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier”, while the second was a somewhat more anxious and insistent “Ich ruf zu dir”. These certainties of faith were followed by a curiously-titled pairing of pieces by Gounod and Debussy – “A Baptism and a Funeral”. I got the “Baptism”concept without too much trouble, Gounod’s “Serenade” offering a suitably attractive nascent quality not unlike parts of Faure’s “Dolly” Suite – but, as already stated, I struggled when equating an organ transcript of Debussy’s piano Prelude “La fille aux cheveux de lin” with a funereal kind of association. When listening to this much-played piece, I thought how much more exciting it would have been to hear a different prelude of Debussy’s served up on the organ, one appropriate to the surroundings – La Cathédrale engloutie (The Submerged Cathedral) – though perhaps there might not of course have been a connection with Max that justified such an inclusion.

The concert’s finale was the “trumped-up” – sorry! – the “Fake New Symphony”, with Hainsworth inventively bringing four existing movements from other “organ symphonies” together, along with an improvised finale. This form was developed almost exclusively by French composers inspired by the new sonic capabilities and growing sophistication of organs built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll during the nineteenth century. The first “movement” was supplied by Louis Vierne, taken from his own “Organ Symphony No.2”, one with an attention-grabbing opening and a gentler, major-key second subject, the development alternating the music’s sterner and more lyrical aspects, until the symphony’s opening returned with even more strength and expressive power, its conclusion grand and definite.

After this Alfred Lefebure-Wely’s Andante sounded very small beer indeed (“A lot of rubbish!” sniffed somebody sitting alongside where I was) – yes, it was mawkish-sounding, complete with “cooing doves” effects in places, but I thought the effect at the very least delightful, and certainly no more insipid than a rather trite scherzo contributed next by one Joseph Mine, a composer from the period in France regarded by music historians as “barren” – between Rameau and Berlioz – rather like Mozart’s self-mocking “Kaiser Song”, replete with empty fanfare-like gestures.

I liked how Hainsworth then eschewed the “obvious” finale from the genre, firstly taking from its composer, Charles-Marie Widor, the Adagio movement (a pleasant piece, pure and serene) from that very same Symphony No. 5, and then finishing with the organist’s own improvisation, based on the previously-mentioned Christmas Carol “Personent Hodie”. It rounded off an extraordinary, and appropriately flamboyant concert, and provided a sonorous demonstration of the fruits of Max Fernie’s labours in the shape and form of the present St.Mary of the Angels’ Church organ.

For those interested in the whole story the proposed book promises to be enthralling reading. To find out further information, or to place an order, go to Steele Roberts Aotearoa Ltd –, or send an e-mail to Roger Steele at