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Three Organ Recitals (London, Summer 2009)

James McVinnie & Christian Wilson in The City and Knightsbridge

and Michael Bonaventure in Blackheath

The organ lives in a musical world of its own as do many organists, hidden away out of sight. Many church organs are very loud and sometimes hard to tame. This can be disconcerting for music lovers who mostly go to chamber music and small orchestral concerts.

In the City of London Music Festival, 9 July 2009, James McVinnie had me flee from St Lawrence Jewry before the end of a potentially interesting lunchtime recital of JSB, Handel and two modern composers. How was McVinnie, at the enclosed console, actually hearing himself?

Things were no better with Christian Wilson at St Paul's, Knightsbridge on 11 September. This was an enticing chamber music evening, with illustrious guests violist Sarah-Jane Bradley and Lucy Wakeford, harp. But Wilson began with JSB's unfinished Contrapunctus 14, a grotesque, ugly noise at an ear-endangering decibel level.

We have reviewed many performances of The Art of Fugue on a variety of instruments and combinations, many of which work well (google Art of Fugue on Musical Pointers), but this was an alienating travesty. Out in the nave, Bradley held her own (just) against the invisible organist in Hindemith's Funeral Music for King George 5th (normally with strings) and Wakeford,in a duo by York Bowen, who is enjoying something of a revival, showed us that the harp can penetrate surprisingly well in partnership with organ. But it was a dispiriting event, and we didn't last the course...

Altogether more successful (musically) was Michael Bonaventure's recital of contemporary organ music at Blackheath.

A few introductory words might have helped thaw the atmosphere, especially with the player invisible as is so often the case in churches; it was not always easy to tell when a piece was finished and whether it was time to clap...

The forthright beginning of Zielensky's Prayer, which Bonaventure had recently premiered at Canterbury, gave brief cause for anxiety that this might prove to be another overloud event, but it quickly setled down, in three contrasted sections with different textural combinations, which showcased the exciting timbral range of what proved to be an exciting instrument with a good range of dynamics as well as colours.

Zielensky studied at RAM with Paul Patterson, who was there to hear his youthful Games of thirty years ago; a rather wild creation commissioned for an improvisation contest, its graphic score [R] open to many interpretive choices. We enjoyed its variety and wit, but how can one review such an item?

Avril Anderson's lone piper inspired a rather worrying minimalist piece, and her husband's encircling, unfolding happily did not deliver such a "relentless wall of sound" as the composer's note warned us to expect...

Huw Morgan's little biographical suite of pieces reflected the life of an "apostle of philanthropy" in Monmouthshire, and displayed considerable originality. Finally, an invigorating Sketch by Bacewicz, composed thirty years ago for Jean Guillou - he one of my favourite organist/composers (I have collected and reviewed his CDs) whose 80th birthday next year is being celebrated with re-issues of many of them.

Only one caveat; a mere score of listeners (including most of the composers with their companions) came to this attractive and attractively located church; publicity seems to have been restricted to the London Organ Concerts Guide and http://www.organrecitals.com/1/diary.php, a sure way to "ghetto-ise" the instrument from mainstream concertgoers ?

Peter Grahame Woolf

Contemporary Organ Music

Henryk Mikolaj GORECKI Kantata Op 26 (1968)
Gabriel JACKSON Comeragh Litanies (1998)
Laurence CRANE Old Life Was Rubbish (1998 -
(organ version - scored originally for saxophone quartet)
Jean Guillou Saga No 5 (Six Sagas, 1969)
Laurence Crane 'Favourite Chord' (1992) (originally for Accordion - written for Howard Skempton)

David Sutton-Anderson Three Pieces (Mediation, Priere & 44 Frames)
Paul Patterson Tsunami (2005)

[Several last minute changes to the published programmes were needed because of technical problems]*


All Saints Church, Blackheath, London SE3, 13 December 2009

To get a feel of this concert by the Blackheath parish organist (a major recitalist who specialises in music of today) please check out all the blue underlined links, which are intrinsic to this review, one which took longer to researh and write about than its 50 mins or so of music.

Only a very small audience was attracted to Sunday's challenging recital of contemporary organ music, and All Saints Church was very cold...

There were no programme notes, nor did the recitalist, who remained invisible to his listeners throughout, offer any introductions to the chosen items, a listing of which was circulated only after the first item, whichhad been a prolonged and (deliberately?) anti-musical assault by Gorecki's perversely titled Kantata, which needed ear protection.

Next came the most attractive listening of the evening, a sequence of short pieces by Gabriel Jackson which explored many of the tones available in the fine Blackheath organ. Because it comprised a succession of short sections one quickly became confused as to which work one was hearing; I should like to hear the Comeragh Litanies again, and it is helpful to have discovered that the score is available on line.

Laurence Crane has a substantial following for his minimalist-plus creations; listen to one of his deliberately simplistic pieces on the link above...

The trouble with Favourite Chord was that if you hold down an organ note, or a chord, for a long time, without any colouration with stops or alteration with the swell pedal, in my book it ceases to be "music". But make no mistake, there is a following out there for this sort of thing, with Crane's pieces having been listened to thousands of times on HisSpace, with added comments such as " - - nice that someone decided the old life was rubbish (har-de-har-har) and took you on a plunge into the ol' inter-web..."

I was not sure when we got to Cawkwell's more active piece which I didn't recognise*, but you can watch Bonaventure playing it on a useful video on his webpage.

David Sutton-Anderson lists "works of limited technical difficulty" on his webpage; I think we heard three newish examples of them...

Finally, back to real music - Paul Patterson was present to hear a fine interpretation of his memorial/tribute to the deadliest tsunami in the history of the world.

Peter Grahame Woolf

* Cawkwell's piece had not been played because of problems with the Blackheath organ !

South-East Londoners can hear Michael Bonaventure in recital in Catford on 9 January and the following day at again at Blackheath All Saints, the concerts to include Langlais and Guillou (he, one of my favourite organist-composers) and in February Bonaventure will be giving a recital in Westmninster Abbey.


Contemporary British Organ Music - Volumes 1 & 2

Michael Bonaventure - sfz 410 & 610

This new series is specialised, and mainly perhaps the for organists who want a change of repertoire from the excesses of the organ music of Reger and the 19-20 British composers.

Three pages of each booklet is given over to the fine organ at Upper Norwood where many of sfz's discs are recorded.

The composers of the first one provide their own notes, often jokey and a bit alarming. Gabriel Jackson explores "the organ's more bizarre colouristic possibilities, wth odd things, spooky textures" in sectional music with durations derived from the letters michaelbonaventure... All his music has "sectional construction", sixteen in Comeragh Litanies.

Two here are wedding presents, Aquarius etc featuring some splendid trumpet playing (Mark O'Keefe). Laurence Crane has a piece consisting of just two chords Old life was rubbish and variants of it are interspersed between Jackson's.

But, lest I've missed the point, see a more sympathetic review in Music Web.

Husband and wife Anderson (he hyphenates and writes their notes) offer a more serious and austere sequence, with many a long note or chord to remind you that without use of the swell pedal the organ can be very monolithic and lack the sort of expressive inflections which are second nature to most instrumentalists.

Again, I think you'll do better with Music Web, to which I defer.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Volume 3 is to be launched at a recital in Southwark Cathedral 5 June 2011.