Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Robert Quinney: Organ Recital at Sutton's Hospital, Charterhouse 2nd December 2008

I had two main reasons for attending this superb organ recital at the Chapel of Sutton’s Hospital in Charterhouse. Firstly was the opportunity to hear Ralph Vaughan Williams’s little heard Prelude and Fugue in C minor. Secondly was the rare chance to see inside part of the old Charterhouse in London. Readers of the Shardlake novels will be well aware of this venerable institution and it plumbing! Furthermore, it is one of the places that Elizabeth I stayed, it is also close to the site of the house of Catherine Parr and finally it was one of the last of the monasteries to be ‘dissolved’ during the events following Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy – but not without a fight.

The Chapel organ is a superb Walker of which the Charterhouse authorities are justly proud. The National Pipe Organ register linked above gives all the details – however there was a major restoration in 2003, which does not seem to be mentioned in this page. The organ itself is a two manual instrument that is truly versatile – certainly in the hands of Robert Quinney. The contrast between the styles of the English seventeenth-century composer John Blow and the mighty Louis Vierne was well supported by the registration: this organ sounds great whether playing in ‘baroque or Cavaillé-Coll' style!

The programme was well balanced. The first half had three works – the Prelude and Fugue in C minor BWV546 by J.S. Bach and concluded with the R.V.W piece mentioned above. The middle work was a superb realisation of Bach’s Trio Sonata VI in G BWV530. Quinney provided a superb balance between the roistering last movement, the rapid first and a very thoughtful ‘lento’.

The Vaughan Williams is a curious piece in many ways. Certainly it is a very difficult work to play and ‘bring off’ on a modest organ. It was written in 1921 and certainly does not fall into the ‘pastoral’ or ‘folk song category’ that most people seem to associate this composer. In fact the work is almost a sketch or ‘cartoon’ for the Job, for the disturbing Fourth Symphony and in some places the sublime Fifth. Perhaps the nearest the composer approaches a ‘pastoral mood’ is the subject for the fugue. A.E.F Dickinson has written that this is the only ‘fugue’ that the composer ever wrote – but I must say that it is a ‘damned good one.’
The ‘prelude’ is a complex piece to pull off. It is really written as a ‘ritornello’ – thus perhaps nodding to the opening Bach work which Vaughan Williams knew and loved. The difficulty with the ‘prelude’ is getting the balance right between the ‘pillars’ of the movement and the episodes. Quinney managed to explore this contrast well, and it resulted in a truly satisfying performance. I
have always regarded this work as much more vital to the composer’s legacy than is perhaps generally accepted. Last night’s performance reinforced this view: it was the best rendition I have heard. I hope to hear Robert Quinney play this on a ‘big’ instrument one day for contrast.

And of course most enthusiasts of English music will know that Vaughan Williams attended the Charterhouse School. However by the time he became a pupil it had moved from Clerkenwell to Godalming in Surrey. Yet the connection is there.

After a very short interval we heard the Blow Voluntary XVIII. Blow is a bit of a puzzle in English music – being somewhat overshadowed by Henry Purcell. However, this enigmatic work certainly showed his music to be truly European in character and not in any way parochial. Robert suggested that if this work had been published in Germany or Italy it may well have been called a Chromatic Fantasy

Two wonderful pieces by Vierne followed – showing off the organ’s ability to speak with a sophisticated French accent. Of course the Scherzo: Symphonies II is probably many peoples favourite movement from this vast cycle of organ symphonies. It is a light-foot, fleet-foot and will o’ wisp adventure in sound. Often nodding towards a mood more akin to a Wurlitzer than a Walker it charmed, entertained and disappeared into a puff of smoke. Fantastic. I must admit to not being a fan of the Frenchman’s Claire de Lune. However it was well played and came across as a superb mediation that matched the atmosphere in the chapel. It made fine use of the string and flute stops.

Lastly, the audience were treated to a performance of Charles Villiers Stanford’s fine Fantasia and Toccata in D minor. Of course anyone expecting a Vierne or Widor-like ‘toccata’ would have been sadly disappointed – it is not a flamboyant work in that manner. In fact, as the key signature may suggest, it is a deeply felt work that is perhaps more like the toccatas of Buxtehude than nineteenth-century Paris. That said, this was a fine work to conclude the evening with. The recital ended with applause and appreciation of the organist’s skill and selection of programme.

Robert Quinney is presently the Sub-Organist at Westminster Abbey, and as such is in much demand as a soloist and a continuo player. He is also a musicologist and specialises in the music of the eternal J.S.B.

After the concert, I was privileged to have a glass (or two) of wine with the Brothers in the refectory. It was pleasant and inspiring to be able to talk to quite a few charming gentlemen who are now the residents in this charitable organisation. I think especially of the gentleman who spiced his conversations with plentiful quotations from Dr. Johnston!

Lastly the entire evening was summed up for my by another of the Brothers who stated that Charterhouse felt like being parachuted into a plot from Jane Austen. I left the refectory and walked through the quadrangle (so like an Oxford College). I felt that he was right. Twentieth Century London seemed a hundred miles and at least two hundred years away.

John France 3rd December 2008

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