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ACOUSTIC EXPEDITIONS: ORGAN MUSIC 2020


Reviewed by ANDRE BEAUMONT



King's College Chapel fan vaulting from the rearmost row of pews

We have storm Dennis assailing Britain as I start this review. 30 metre high waves are forecast for the North Atlantic. A tailwind pushed me past the pineapple exhibit outside the Fitzwilliam Museum on the way to an organ recital by Simon Bell at King's College Chapel, Cambridge on 15 February 2020.


Architectonic Pineapple by Bompas and Parr on an unstormy day

At the side of the Chapel there was lots of wind shear but once inside there was calm, which does not mean silence. In mediaeval times when homes were mainly less sturdy it must have been reassuring to take refuge from a storm in the immense solidity of a building like this.

Of all Gothic buildings I would hazard that this is the one with the most glazing in close proximity to a congregation by virtue of its late Perpendicular style, of which it is the apogee. Dating from completion of the Chapel in 1515 to 1531, the stained glass windows are mainly Flemish in execution and the tracery more slender than before.


Adoration of the Magi by Rubens, which arrived in 1968, is rarely seen these days


I do think the air has to be right to add to the excellence of an organ recital. Glass transmits sound and resonates too. On a night like this the air pressure outside, assailing the windows, is met with the force of the organ's resonance coming the other way and what is reflected back at you changes pitch and complexity. The further you sit up the nave the more the high notes bounce at you off the windows, going beyond tertiary reflections and merging into a hybrid sound, a ringing, that takes you beyond what can be identified as notes. Then there are the infrasonics of 32 foot pipes that go down to nearly 16Hz which you hear through the backs of the rearmost pews or the flagstones if sitting further forward, added to which are the audible sounds and the infrasonics of the wind.

It is reflections off glass and off the diffusing hard surfaces of the largest and best of fan vaults that add to the crystal clarity of voices recorded here. Microphones cannot, though, record the full glory of organ music or its full complexity.


Over 280 volatile compounds have been found in pineapples. So when someone says this wine smells of pineapple (or, indeed, another fruit) I have to do a double take and see if I can recognize what must be one or two of the compounds. I personally no more choose to describe wines in terms of fruits than would describe pineapple as smelling like wine but I accept that one needs to strive for a language. Organ music is full of auditory complexity.

It has been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, which leaves me stuck, but I do know I can write about architecture and this suggests where this review will go over the course of the year as I attend more organ recitals.

So Simon Bell made me listen better. He made good use of the throaty depth and volume of the organ with precision. The air was fairly good and, certainly, with more sounds in it. From where I was sitting I could almost 'see' how some of the reflections were coming because they were multiple (in fact hear and then measure angle, as a cat can by moving its ears!) so happened to learn how to listen better and will do so at future recitals.

The programme was Hollins Concert Overture in C minor, Vierne Symphony No.2 in E minor - ii Chorale, iii Scherzo, Leighton Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia, Op.41.

It is the Louis Vierne 150th anniversary year so I hope to attend more organ recitals associated with that.

*****

On 23 February 2020 I went to a recital at Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge.

Listening I think the Metzler organ the best I have heard in Cambridge. It was not considered so by critical opinion when it was installed but cultural tastes have become more European.

The chapel's acoustic is not an easy one to describe and by my take is much about ambient sounds and social spaces, as is all of Trinity to the Backs.

The chapel's hammerbeam roof damps sound where the fan vaulting at King's both reflects and diffuses it, which does not necessarily flatter the Metzler. The architectural space at Trinity is much less complex though mediaeval too.

The pay off is in accompanying services and in particular when there are a lot of people processing, or coming, in an out. It sounds absolutely glorious when ambient sounds add to the complexity.

The recital given by Jonathan Hope - Bach Fantasia and Fugue in G BWV542, Vierne Intermezzo Symphony No.3, Op. 28 and a Mendelssohn Prelude and Fugue - were near flawless in execution.

There is relatively little vibration from the organ through the furniture or floor.

The acoustic is different for three parts of the building.

At the east end, where there is the altar, it can be hard work on the human voice as there are too many reflective surfaces. The ante-chapel, where you would not normally be in a service, has its own acoustic - quite nice when used as a social space.

The central space, with its high panelling, pews, overhead hammerbeam and pleasant width - not too close and not too distant from those opposite - where most services, performances and listening to the organ would take place, is a location which I have grown to identify as characteristically Trinity.

There is less sound reflection here. No voice either speaking or singing dominates here though it can be heard if it is intended to be. That is Trinity through and through - quality in depth and breadth but no dominance. It is a good social space.

It is generally good for singing in, too. I stayed on for the service. The choir, which used to be an also ran to King's and Clare, is now rated fifth best in the world. I loved their Gerald Finzi anthem Lo, the full, final sacrifice (1946).



The most enjoyable was at the end. You heard the rustle of people filing out of the wooden pews - it sounds better here than most places - and the restrained sounds of footfall on marble. The associate organist, Luke Fitzgerald, was playing the voluntary, Buxtehude Preludium in C, BuxWV 137 and I, of course, was sitting listening. We had all been invited to drinks in the ante-chapel. Then the music stopped and you could hear the loud hubub in the ante-chapel. You had not heard it beneath the organ but you must have done. This organ likes the sound of people.