The I.A.O. Congress 2007

by Nigel C.B. Durrant

THE five-hour wait for my delayed flight, turbulence and concomitant vomitory triumphs by the football intellectuals in front of me once airborne presaged ill for my visit to the 2007 I.A.O. Annual Congress in Glasgow. My forebodings, however, proved unwarranted. Dame Gillian Weir opened the official proceedings with a rollicking recital featuring a wide range of styles on the 106-year-old Lewis & Co. at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery; in her lively word of thanks, retiring President Catherine Ennis pleaded for more such ‘sit and listen’ programmes here, to vie with the ‘promenade’ recitals for museum visitors. The organ certainly deserves it.

            There were plenty of sit-and-listen programmes in the ensuing days. On the first full day we went to Paisley, where George McPhee’s playing of a French and Scottish programme (Dandrieu/James MacMillan/Duruflé) attested to a love-affair with ‘his’ (originally) Cavaillé-Coll in the Abbey: as an encore he played two simple, charming hymn-tune preludes by Gordon Cameron. A quite different programme (including a brief 90th-birthday tribute to Francis Jackson) in the Coats Memorial Church followed, and a coach-trip to Largs. Here, John Kitchen (whose erudite waggishness was on call throughout the congress) demonstrated the unaltered 1892 Henry Willis in St. Columba’s church in a well-chosen programme that illustrated the possibilities of this majestic two-manual instrument (with trigger swell-pedal) to a T. An edifying accident allowed us to hear the same works by Bach and Howells played on different instruments by two people on the same day. In the evening those who wanted to (and most did) could listen to a spontaneously delivered lecture by Relf Clark on Elgar and the organ. When considering Elgar’s organ music, he concluded, much revolves around transcription. Was the second sonata an arrangement of music for wind-band, or did the Severn Suite develop from sketches originally made for keyboard music?

            The second sonata was played the next morning in Glasgow Cathedral by John Turner, the cathedral’s organist and director of music. He opened his programme with Titelouze’s Urbs beata Jerusalem preceded by his own three versets, devised ‘in a different but … not jarring style’ out of ‘frustration that the plainsong might be unrecognised by an average congregation in the slow-moving bass of Titelouze’s magnificent setting’. After lunch, the A.G.M. in Glasgow University Chapel. We remained seated to follow a masterclass given by Kevin Bowyer with three students tackling Bach’s ‘Wedge’ Prelude and Fugue and Mendelssohn’s Prelude and Fugue in D minor (which the teacher admitted to never having played himself), and being guided through tests. A huge screen showed us the players’ wrists and knees in anatomical detail. After a coffee break Bowyer displayed enviable virtuosity in the Brereton Memorial Recital, opening with Edwin Lemare’s Toccata di Concerto and finishing with our first performance this week of Elgar’s first sonata. In between, two novelties: Eireann Notes by Paul Fisher (the music was on sale beforehand), seven Irish folk melodies set for organ; and a hilarious rendering of A Church Service interrupted by a Thunderstorm by one David Clegg (1867-1923). It will be difficult to maintain a straight face throughout the preces and responses for a long time yet.

            On Thursday we boarded our three coaches for Edinburgh, where the first stop was at the Reid Memorial Church. The organ here, built in 1933 by Rushworth and Dreaper, was designed by Alfred Hollins and demonstrated by Jeremy Cull who played it ‘as it was intended to be played’ – to entertain as well as educate. Dr. Cull ended his programme with Hollins’ own Theme with Variations & Fugue – and a proper fugue at that. Most of the rest of his programme comprised arrangements, including the Notturno from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Ravel’s Mother Goose. Not exactly lollipops, but Tom Thumb’s organic breadcrumbs got a good airing. At Canongate Kirk we heard the glorious sounds of Th. Frobenius’ opus 1000 and a world première, an I.A.O. commission: Little Suite, by Malcolm Archer (pre-publication copies were on sale before the beginning of Duncan Ferguson’s performance). The playing for the rest of the Congress, apart from a rather tongue-in-cheek town-hall type programme given by John Kitchen in a rather dusty Usher Hall (shortly to be closed for refurbishment), was in the hands of two gifted young musicians, Francesca Massey and Simon Hogan. Francesca regaled us at Canongate with some beautiful colours in Buxtehude and Bach (second trio sonata) and gave a stirring reading of Peter Racine Fricker’s rarely heard Pastorale. In Guy Bovet’s Salamanca she seemed to have had access to an authentic pipe-and-tabor. In Dunblane Cathedral the next day she introduced us to the 1990 Flentrop with Bach (again the Wedge) and a technically assured performance of Kenneth Leighton’s Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia. Simon, at St. Cuthbert’s Parish Church, effortlessly displayed his mastery of a broad repertoire, starting with the grave from Percy Whitlock’s C minor sonata and going by way of his hero Pierre Cochereau and Bach to the second performance this week of Elgar’s first sonata. In his Dunblane programme, which (apart from whisky and dinner) closed the congress, he gave us more Bach and Cochereau after kicking off with Fiat lux, by Dubois. One felt that his performance emanated from his heart and passed through his fingers to mould the wind in the organ pipes.

            Guest speaker at the Annual Dinner was Lord Gill, who reminded us that we organists must make the case for organ-music by lobbying outside our own circle. Only by ‘sitting on the bench’ with good organists, said the Lord Justice Clerk, will young people become involved and we must all propagate the pipe organ ‘against wonderful electronic instruments from the organ-shop’.

 

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