PHI CD 221: Organ Showcase Volume Two Hull City Hall Roger Fisher plays music by Bach & Vierne


J S Bach (1685- 1750)
[1]-[2] Prelude and Fugue in C major (BWV 545)
[3] Chorale Prelude: "Nun komm der Heiden Heiland" (BWV 659)
[4]-[5] Prelude and Fugue in B minor (BWV 544) [12.32]
[6] Chorale Prelude: "Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend" (BWV 655)
(Lord Jesus Christ, turn Thou to us)
[7]-[8] Prelude & Fugue in A major (BWV 536)

Louis Vierne (1870-1937)
Symphony no 2 in E minor, opus 20
[9] Allegro [10] Choral [11] Scherzo [12] Cantabile [13] Final
Console assistant: Gillian Fisher
Recorded & produced by Martin Monkman, Amphion Recordings
Recorded at Hull City Hall, 15 & 16 January 2007


Released 14/11/07

Thanks are expressed to Kingston-upon-Hull City Council and to the staff of Hull City Hall for their help and encouragement with the making of this recording: Tony Ridley, City Hall Manager, Olwyn Hall, House Manager, Richard Mobbs, stage manager, Lee Greaves & Paul Broadie, technicians, Tony Evans & Mike Redley, house electricians & also to Graham Smails of Cousans Organs who tunes & maintains the City Hall Organ. Thanks also to John Pemberton, the Organ Curator of Hull City Hall for all his help during the recording of this CD.

In 1900 a scheme was drawn up to build a public hall in the centre of Hull and J.H.Hirst, the city architect, working in consultation with the renowned architect Frank Matcham, designed the building copying the renaissance style of the Wren period. Work commenced in 1903 when the then Princess of Wales laid the foundation stone and the building was in use by 1909.
Mr J.A.Meale, organist of the Queen's Hall Mission, Hull, drew up the specification for the City Hall Organ for which space had been provided at the rear of the stage. The design proved controversial and some leading organ builders of the time declined to tender, considering the instrument unnecessarily large and too big for the allotted space. The contract was eventually placed with the famous Hull firm of Forster and Andrews with Philip Selfe (by then principal partner), directing the work and designing the distinguished organ case which blends so admirably with the architecture of the Hall. Edwin Lemare gave the opening recital on Thursday 30th March 1911.
In 1941 Hull City Hall was shut as a result of bomb damage to the roof, the organ also being badly affected. The restored Hall was re-opened in 1950 and in the following year the restoration and enhancement of the organ by the John Compton Organ Company was completed. Comptons respected and preserved the work of Forster and Andrews, but, by making sympathetic tonal alterations, corrected the organ's previous lack of power. The magnificent instrument as heard today has undergone no further major tonal modifications, and long may it remain unchanged.
Between 1985 and 1991, Rushworth and Dreaper rebuilt the organ console with drawstops, introduced solid state switching, re-leathered the bellows and restored the soundboards.
It is now hoped that the instrument will be heard more often and that this C.D. recording will help in that process.
© John Pemberton (Organ Curator) November 2003

Programme Notes by Roger Fisher
Should one perform Bach, let alone record him on a big concert organ?
My answer is that at least this is permissible, if the stylistic conventions of the 18th century are borne in mind.
Does the absence of mechanical action have a crippling effect on the music?
In my view there is nothing to beat a really sensitive mechanical action, but, the subtleties that such actions produce are not so clearly audible in big venues and it is rare for larger instruments to have a really sensitive touch. To ensure that the touch is not too heavy organ builders actually set the actions so that, when manuals are coupled, the pallets open one after another in sequence, as the combined "pluck" would be more than players could handle. Moreover, the touch on organs with mechanical actions tends to be heavier in the bass than in the treble, which can discourage really fine articulation in the bass octaves.
By contrast, an electro-pneumatic action can be set so finely that every note on every keyboard has the same touch and coupling makes no difference to the player at all. There is no staggered response from the actions either, so coupled manuals may add a little stereo spread, but there is little blurring of contrapuntal outlines. In Hull City Hall, the layout of the organ is simple, and no division obscures the tonal egress of any other, so clarity is not obscured. The sound of each pipe can travel directly to the listener.
The wind pressures are higher than on an 18th century organ, of course, but this large hall contains far more absorbents than most 18th century churches, so a pressure of 6 inches for the flue pipes is not, relatively speaking, very high. Most of all, the original organ was voiced by Philip Selfe, a real artist, and if the resulting instrument was too reticent, this was corrected after the 1939-45 war by Jimmy Taylor of Comptons in a most polished way, so that none of the pipework sounds forced or overblown.
From a Bach player's point of view the tone is often full, but singing, clear but never harsh, and over-all there is a sparkle and freshness in the sound which is most uplifting. An added advantage is that the Pedal Organ has a wide range of stops of moderate power which have exceptional clarity.
I love playing Bach on instruments by Schnitger and his contemporaries, but listeners may feel that the music of this composer is too great to be limited to one specific medium and that it can be effective on instruments substantially different from those which he knew personally. Bach's own comments on organ design and construction show that he liked grandeur of tone, was insistent on really adequate wind supplies and insisted too that the Tremulant be kept in perfect order. There is some evidence too that he was interested in the experiments with string-toned stops which were increasingly taking place in the 18th century.
Whether he would have liked some of our modern organs or not, we can only guess, but my feeling is that, in Hull City Hall, at least, his music comes to life very effectively, I enjoyed playing there.
It seems a pity to demean great music by referring to catalogue numbers, but, with prolific composers, it's the only way we can distinguish between works of identical titles in identical keys:
[1]-[2] Prelude and Fugue in C major (BWV 545)
This is one of Bach's grandest works and, although it is not a great technical hurdle, the player must ensure that the highly logical counterpoint is at all points clear. Terraced dynamics are appropriate, of course, but use of the swell pedal would be out of place. The pedal ornaments printed in the Bärenreiter edition, but not all others, add to the sense of splendour, as does the upward schleifer which Bärenreiter includes in the subject of the fugue. If the end of a grand piece of this nature does not convey a sense of joy and triumph, what is one playing it for? The use of the schleifer in the last few bars provides just the right finishing touch to a masterpiece.
[3] Chorale Prelude: "Nun komm der Heiden Heiland" (BWV 659)
"Come now, Saviour of the Gentiles" The melody was adapted from the plainchant Veni, redemptor gentium of 1524 and the words are a translation of a Latin hymn attributed to St Ambrose.
The continuous quavers in the pedal part conjure up, to me at least, a deep longing that seems to come from the depths of the earth for the coming of the Saviour, while the LH counterpoint seems to convey the complexities of human life. The tendrils of the melodic line may be taken to convey the soothing power of Christ the Comforter, and these become more elaborate as the piece proceeds, with a florid outburst of joy at the end.
[4]-[5] Prelude and Fugue in B minor (BWV 544)
This work represents the composer at the peak of his powers and the almost continuous demi-semiquavers are an indication, as elsewhere in Bach's music, that the basic pulse is not actually very fast. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that the emotions of 18th century folk were any less vivid than those of the present day despite the title The Age of Elegance and the subtext of this music may not only be a slow dance, but also an air of urgency which is exemplified in the powerful octave leaps in the pedal and the recurring dotted rhythms.
A performer's note is appropriate here, as there is an old English tradition that, when the prelude and fugue are played together, the prelude should end with a minor chord, the Tièrce de Picardie being reserved for the end of the fugue. In adhering to this tradition, I have to admit that I do so for emotional reasons rather than out of any particular scholastic knowledge or experience. It may be that Benjamin Britten felt the same when, against the 18th century tradition of making dotted notes and triplets agree when played simultaneously in different voice parts, he asked the horns proudly to adhere to their exact notation in his recording of the first movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto no 1. The effect may not be authentic, but there is no denying the excitement and splendour which the resulting rhythmic complexities produce.
What is really remarkable about Bach's fugue here, is the simplicity of the subject. All the notes go by step and it is left to the counter-subject and other subsidiary themes to inject more angular elements into the music. All the ingredients are simple, but Bach's supreme powers of organisation ensure that, by the time the final triumphant chord is reached, the composer's structure has become even more satisfying. Did he, or anyone else, ever prove more effectively that a fine sense of structure can lead to an overwhelming intellectual and emotional experience?
[6] "Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend" (BWV 655) (Lord Jesus Christ, turn Thou to us)
Bach undoubtedly believed that trio playing is the foundation of all good organ technique, as did Harold Darke, who trained me. Hands and feet must learn to be independent, so Bach liked to write in trio texture as often as possible. But! Here he obviously wanted to achieve more than that, and may have had in mind the third verse of the chorale which reads
Till we the angels join to sing
Eternal praise to Thee our King;
Till we behold Thy face most bright,
In joy and everlasting light.
It is this radiance that is so vividly reflected, and, although the music has a sparkling quality, the source of the light is brought to mind by the use of the chorale on the pedals at the end.
[7]-[8] Prelude & Fugue in A major (BWV 536)
This miniature is like nothing else in Bach's output and I know of no parallel works in the music of any other composer. The prelude is rhapsodic and simple harmonically, and may be taken as recalling the style of Buxtehude or even Pachelbel. The fugue is a teaser for the player, as the rhythmic shape, even of the subject itself, is ambiguous. There are many moments when a regular pulse is almost abandoned and charming syncopations appear and rhythmic ingenuities hold our attention. A miniature pedal cadenza and a very short coda, give the work an enigmatic ending. By writing a very short chord at the end, did Bach imply that we might make a rallentando (not usually indicated in 18th century scores) to soften the abrupt conclusion?
Wouldn't it be marvellous if we had recordings of Bach's playing, but wouldn't life be boring? We should all then be trying to copy the composer exactly - a sterile exercise, while the whole industry of Bach scholarship would disappear. How limited we should feel if we knew exactly what he did and how stifling to the imagination this situation would be. How much courage we should need even to consider doing anything differently. As things stand, the research, the scholarship, yes, and the disagreements are all such fun!
[9]-[13] Louis Vierne: Symphony no 2 in E minor, opus 20
Allegro, Choral, Scherzo, Cantabile, Final
Louis Vierne (1870-1937) was born almost blind, but showed exceptional musical talent at an early age. At the age of seven, he had an operation to improve his sight, and this was successful, but in the last four years of his life, he was again completely blind.
His life was a sad one, with numerous health problems and he knew from an early age what it was to suffer bereavement. He lost his sister when he was six, his greatly beloved uncle Charles (Colin) at the age of 11 and his father when he was 16. At 20, he lost his greatly admired teacher César Franck. Later he was to be deeply affected by the loss of his mother (1910), one of his teachers (Alexandre Guilmant) in 1911, his son André (who had suffered from tuberculosis for four years), his brother René, killed in combat in 1916 and his teenage son, Jacques, who was also killed in combat in 1917. An operation for the removal of a cataract on his right eye in 1918, was followed by a complication which meant that he had to spend six months in a totally darkened room and even then it was not a success. In 1906 he had broken his right leg and ankle and narrowly avoided amputation - recovery was painful and slow, while he later, in 1920, suffered acute neuritis in his right arm and was unable to use it for many months. His marriage to Arlette Taskin in 1899 only lasted ten years on account of her infidelity and, while he was granted custody of his eldest son, Jacques, the custody of his younger children, André and Colette, was granted to his wife. In 1909 his marriage was annulled by the Catholic Church on condition that he did not re-marry.
What is remarkable about his life is that all these impediments to his health and happiness did not prevent him from being highly successful musically, becoming highly respected as a recitalist and as a composer. Highly regarded by his teachers, he graduated from the Institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institute for the Blind) with highest honours. He became Widor's assistant at St Sulpice at the age of 22 and Widor's teaching assistant at the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 24. At the age of thirty he was appointed, after open competition between 50 candidates, to be Titulaire Organiste at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris in 1900.
By 1920 he was almost ruined financially and was a physically and psychologically broken man, but, nevertheless he re-established his career. The flow of fine compositions continued and in 1927 he made a four month recital tour of the USA and Canada. He lived long enough to record Three Improvisations on 78rpm discs and to supervise the restoration of his magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ in Notre Dame. His end was dramatic, as he died of a stroke in the middle of a recital programme in Notre Dame, which he was sharing with his brilliant student Maurice Duruflé.
Vierne's compositions range widely and include much chamber music, a number of orchestral works, piano music and songs, but above all he is known for his Six Symphonies for Organ, Twenty Four Pièces en Style Libre and Twenty Four Pièces de Fantaisie! His Symphony no 2 in E minor, opus 20 of 1902 is a bitter-sweet work of immense emotional power and fascinating construction. The key scheme of the five movements is interesting, as the E minor of the first movement finishes on a chord of E major and the final G sharp is treated as the key-note of the second movement, which enharmonically becomes A flat major. The final A flat of the second movement then, again enharmonically, becomes the third of the scale of the Scherzo, which is in E major, and the key-note of the Scherzo then becomes the third of the scale in C sharp minor, which is the key of the Cantabile. Having reached the remote key of C sharp major for the ecstatic ending of the Cantabile, the opening of the Final (A minor, leading to the main key of E minor) becomes all the more dramatic and the triumphant ending of the whole work in E major all the more logical and inevitable.
Thematically, the symphony is interesting too, as the two main themes of the first movement supply material for the whole symphony:
Theme A (at the E minor opening and in itself very bitter), becomes transformed in many ways and in particular, supplies the sunny second subject of the Scherzo. It is the basis of the grief-laden Cantabile and supplies many ingredients for the Final, not least its main theme and its transformed E major versions at the end of the whole work.
Theme B (the G major second subject of the first movement) is initially serene, but is later combined with theme A in the development section (but in the more dour key of C minor) and the final E minor struggles of this opening movement. It re-appears in the second movement in three transformations. First as a pedal solo and chorale, then as a canonic pianissimo interlude and finally as a triumphant statement on full organ.
There are countless subtleties of construction in this fascinating work, not least the hints at Bach's name (not at its original pitch) which are hidden in the Final. I find that more and more thematic links reveal themselves in this fascinating work, but, for the listener who is not interested in the complexities of compositional technique, these links can be of subconscious assistance as the emotional power of the magnificent work is unravelled. The struggles of the opening movement, the Final and, in the middle of the Choral, contrast beautifully with the light hearted Scherzo and overwhelming sadness of the Cantabile which is one of the most moving depictions of human grief in the whole of the organ repertoire.
©Roger Fisher, 2007