by Nigel C.B. Durrant
The fully fledged organist is a venturesome fellow. Being handed five or six scrawled numbers five minutes before taking up his post on a Sunday morning he can, for starters, confidently inspire a packed congregation to sing lustily. (All right, coax the few people lurking in the pews into a half-hearted mumble.) Or he can regale a group of enthusiasts for an hour or so with the sensuous sounds of Antient Music wheedled out of an instrument that saw Queen Victoria crowned. There again – and this is my favourite aspect of our existence – he might sit intimately in the midst of a small assemblage of his fellow musicians, cajoling a subtle accompaniment to their strings and voices out of a single manual with only two or three stops. These and other skills do not just drop out of the air; before we can lay claim to any vocational proficiency we must serve our apprenticeship, each of us recognising and defining a personal goal. And in the process each and every one of us will develop individual perceptions and turn out differently from All The Rest.
Two recitals I have attended this year may illustrate my thesis. In May, two Leyden churches were the venue for a single recital. The music presented was culled from the so-called Schelble-Gleichauf manuscript, a remnant of the customary way of handing down Bach’s organ-music until about 1840. Some of the music in this collection may be considered authentic while other pieces are clearly not, or only partly, by Bach. Peter van Dijk, carrying his learning with characteristic wit, brought some well-substantiated Bach to life in the Lokhorst church, after which we walked en masse to the Huguenot church in the next street for a selection of seeming impostors, each sporting its BWV number. A few weeks earlier, in Eindhoven, Leo van Doeselaar opened an intriguing concert with neither printed programme nor verbal introduction (apparently leaving the newspaper’s critic foxed for a single title) on the concert-hall’s 1993 Pels & van Leeuwen organ with music by Mendelssohn and Widor. He then joined his duet partner Wyneke Jordans at the piano for a selection of organ music arranged for piano duet. So we heard, for example, the Widor toccata twice as well as the Bach toccata and fugue and the Mozart clock fantasia in unfamiliar guises. The personal intuition of these musicians can always be relied on to nourish their unique approach to music-making.
Despite the successes of impassioned town planners in the past 60-odd years and a wealth of innovative architecture, war-scarred Rotterdam never scores high in the popularity stakes. But lovers of large organs will not want to miss the largest organ in the country – by Marcussen & Søn, with 2000 pipes on the Hoofdwerk alone – in the town’s stunningly restored St. Laurenskerk. This instrument was inaugurated 35 years ago (and it has been intimated that this is the last organ of comparable size that will ever be built). No surprise, then, that this organ played an important rôle in a new biannual ‘titillating’ festival at the beginning of June, the Rotterdam Organ Days, RODA for short. ‘Old organs, new wind’ was the inexplicable slogan. Other venues were the concert-hall De Doelen, where the first large-scale concert organ by Flentrop Orgelbouw visually dominates the main hall, as well as the Paradijskerk and the town-hall, with their more manageable beasties. Built in 1967, the Doelen organ was very much a child of its time and it was curious to graft a concert organ onto neo-baroque principles. Although the original contract stipulated electro-pneumatic action, Flentrop took the initiative and installed mechanical instead. Within the last couple of years this instrument has been subjected to a rigorous tonal rethink. (I retain memories of playing it in Mahler’s second symphony. When the organist comes into action 90 minutes after the work begins (and a split second after not quite remembering if he’s switched the blower on), his period of inactivity is compensated by a blast that can blow back the hair of the entire kitchen section. But here my hands then had to cachucha fandango bolero between manuals to effect some semblance of the drawn-out diminuendo on a held chord before all the kettledrums can share the limelight in the glorious we-must-die-if-we-are-to-live theme.)
But I digress. A feature of this new festival’s organisation was an internet ballot throughout April in which members of the public could vote for the pieces that they would like to hear performed live. Overall winner was Bach’s Passacaglia in c minor, though there were some surprises; favourite in the category 19th & 20th century English organ-music was Samuel Wesley’s Air & Gavotte while the fans of Dutch music of the same vintage opted for Jan Zwart’s ‘Sombere muziek over Psalm 103’ which I will not bother to translate. ‘A festival with sparkling ideas, a new approach, novel presentation and surprises around the King of Instruments’ according to the blurb. We’ll see. I was sorry to have to miss Thomas Trotter’s Saturday-evening duel with a brass band.
One Saturday afternoon in June — after the deadline for my jottings — I went to Amsterdam to hear what I was confident would be a superlative recital. In the New Church, no longer used as a church except when a new monarch is installed, the two resident organists tardily celebrated the 25th anniversary of their appointment in 1981. Sprightly octogenarian Gustav Leonhardt started the ball rolling by shedding some light on the true history of the 1655 main organ by Johannes Wolfgang (or Hans Wolff) Schonat, the first organ to have towers of pedal pipes. Then Bernard Winsemius played music from Sweelinck to Bach, these two composers being represented by the player’s own arrangements. After an interval the afternoon’s two stars exchanged tasks. The organ was presented in a programme ranging from Van den Kerkhoven to J.C.F. Fischer after Bernard Winsemius had given a causerie illustrating the general perception of our country’s church organists’ standing. His own mother, he told us, and her two sisters played every Sunday, year in, year out, in the local Reformed church. Not a cent did they receive in remuneration, but each year the minister presented his father with a box of cigars by way of thanks. No organist, of course, is more dazzlingly fledged than that afternoon’s two heroes. Yet Heer Leonhardt’s uncommonly subtle articulation and inherent sense of musical architecture — he gave us the woods and the trees — made me heartily hope that I shall be here to accept their open invitation to their 50th anniversary recital.
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