Brighton Fringe 2018
Michael Maine, Jamie Andrews perform on the newly-restored Hill organ, All Saints. Concerts every Thursday.
It’s a blast: official. The great Hill organ at All Saints received its inaugural recital after refurbishing over the past year. Dating from 1894 and 1905, it’s otherwise untouched; a late Victorian embonpoint of romanticism.
So that’s what the Rev. Michael Maine (organist emeritus), and organ scholar Jamie Andrews gave us. The oldest composer was Mendelssohn, and though the youngest was 110 years younger dying in 2002 (Gerald Bales) the music stayed – as usual with the organ – stubbornly harmonic. I’ve never heard this organ before. The acoustics in this High Anglican building are impressively resonant but not too swimmy. The sound seems almost to generate the architecture as you watch and listen.
Andrews played two items mid-recital. Maine started with the great founder of Canadian music, British-born Healey Willan (1880-1968) who left for Canada only in 1913, after he’d written this Prelude and Fugue in C Minor from 1908, his first great piece. Maine took the short chromatically dark prelude squarely, full of almost Gothic dissonance (is there such a thing?) leading to this extraordinary double fugue, fluent as the Art Nouveau decorations swirling round drawing rooms at the same time. And impossibly grand without being pompous. The fugue’s six-note theme accented on the first and last notes winds from its edgy minor-keyed bed gathering stark power and strange accents as it goes.
It’s a revelation though. A bit like César Franck, who appears later. There’s no major British repertoire to relate it to except Elgar’s very different, characterful Organ Sonata in cheerful G major from the 1890s. Willan’s is an impressive Teutonically French beast, enormously fluent and darkly grand in Maine’s reading (there’s a fine Naxos recording of Willan’s organ music by Patrick Wedd if you’d like to explore this, including this work).
Because Willan left for Canada, he’s as forgotten (till recently) as Edgar Bainton born the same year who went to Australia at the same time. We should hear his organ music more, particularly this, his Introduction Passacaglia and Fugue (1916) his masterpiece and the other major work from as late as 1959: the Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in E Minor.
Lichtenstein-born Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901) was a sort of Brahms of the organ (Brahms’ last composition was Eleven Organ Chorales Op 122, hardly known). Rheinberger wrote twenty Organ Sonatas, and this Cantilene’s from No. 11 Op 148. Dating from 1887, it’s a quiet oasis in a sea of sharps, a singing evoking Brahms but in its purity Mendelssohn, Rheinberger’s other model. It’d be good to hear a couple of entire Sonatas, just as we’d love to hear the symphonies of Widor or Vierne.
Frank’s Choral in B is the second of his three final Chorales in 1890 before minor traffic injuries hastened his death. So it’s in B major? You’d hardly think so my organ-loving companion whispered: where’s the major? It’s a dark-hued masterpiece, without those striding figures Franck’s famous for, and though it’s a Choral there’s no hymn tune but an original if occlusive melody it weaves around. I’ve blandly never felt that Franck was in danger of sounding esoteric: those great ardent melodies thumped out on full orchestra or repeatedly hammered even in his chamber and piano music. His organ music’s different, sometimes spare, certainly original and strange, to paraphrase a very different Catholic, Gerard Manley Hopkins. This late work’s different again: there’s something almost occult and hidden in this last triptych. It opens and ends quietly, a fantasy of subtle figuring even when strikingly forthright in its climax.
Gerald Bales (1919-2002) is an altogether easier Canadian figure to absorb. Attractively post-Romantic, he sounds like some chirpily neo-classical post-war composers, and a bit like Malcolm Arnold. His Petite Suite’s certainly chirpy, though the Introduction’s striking and suggests the kind of music he was famed for including his Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra of 1946 premiered in Chicago. I don’t otherwise know his work. There’s a winsomely tuneful Intermezzo and an Arnoldian Finale, all very brief, as the title suggests. Really Petite. Nothing strikingly original here, an avowedly light piece. But on this evidence of Bales’ freshness and instrumental colour I’d love to hear that Fantasy.
Andrews took over for the Mendelssohn, also a Prelude and Fugue in C Minor Op 37/1 from 1837. It was written for Mozart’s favourite pupil Thomas Attwood who badgered him. Andrews has a sure touch, and though Maine’s the master of the long-breathed line Andrews showed real flair and command of the Hill instrument. Mendelssohn’s here avowedly indebted to Bach: there’s still light and air with him, absent in every other German Romantic composer for the organ, except one, whom we’ll come to. It’s an imposing work, though Mendelsohn’s melodic gift is inevitably mastered by his counterpoint weave – and brilliant fugal writing; where luckily we encounter a theme that keeps returning. It’s easier for the organist to see how beautiful these pieces are: Mendelssohn ideally needs a more intimate acoustic, perhaps a smaller organ; but if you write for a cathedral organ, you can touch a generalised grandeur.
We know Brighton-born Frank Bridge (1879-1941) not only for his 1911 Suite The Sea, but increasingly for his late great works like his Cello Concerto Oration (1930) and its bitter parodies of war; and his equally great Piano Sonata (1922-25) for instance. He started out more sheerly melodic, and wrote some of the most tuneful piano and string music of the age.
His Adagio dates from 1905, when Bridge was 26. It predates much of his characterful work but shows the same melodic sweetness and clarity we associate with his 1905 string quartet pieces, his 1906 String Quartet No. 1 and 1907 Phantasy Quartet. There’s a clean precision but most of all an emerging angularity that marks Bridge out. He’s one of our dozen greatest composers; his long journey to Second Viennese School premieres (his Third Quartet in Vienna in 1926) is the mark of a great composer continually developing. The Adagio’s a real find: memorable, swift despite its title, and one of a clutch of pieces from a composer who wrote for the piano, not organ. Interstingly, he next returned to the organ just before his death, writing three more angular pieces in 1939.
‘Gentlemen, I have fleas.‘ Not what you’d expect from a Sigfrid, or even a Karg-Elert (1877-1933), though it’s a Wagnerian-sounding name. Karg-Elert hated Prussian pomposity and his university colleagues huddled near him for some investiture were fair game.
How can you top that? He’s the world’s greatest harmonium composer (it’s astonishing, nothing trivial about this), and superb with piano and songs as well as organ. Much of his music’s on the CPO label. An internationalist whose tonal palate is airy, memorably swirled, indeed the definition of Art Nouveau itself, he fell out of fashion and would have had to flee Germany had he not died.
Karg-Elert’s late Triptych dates from 1930, of which the ‘Legend’ is central. It was a thank-you for the London’s Organ Music Society’s holding a ten-day festival in his honour. It’s a lovely chromatically dark but spare piece, not at all like anything here except glancingly the Bridge and Langlais. There’s a harmonically bladed cleanness too recalling Mendelssohn. More Karg-Elert would be wonderful and would win converts.
The blind Jean Langlais (1907-91) was contemporary (all born within ten years) with Duruflé, Messaien, and the tragic Jehan Alain. He lived as long as Duruflé and Messaien, though curiously was known as a womanizer. He’s closer to Duruflé and the short-lived Alain in style; more conventionally French, again angular, not massy, and direct. More inspired by church melodies and plainsong than say mystical conflation.
His Incantation pour un jour Saint is a kind of carillon without bell-effects to a Saint’s Day, designed for the Easter Vigil. Stirring in its bold ceremonial, it avoids the brash by leading up to it with sharply-profiled themes and a gradual build. It’s irresistible. And a fitting close to the renewed life of this superb instrument after seventy-five minutes of unalloyed wonder. Watch out for more concerts, for the organ or more generally, every Thursday.