Pull out all the stops

Pull out all the stops
James McVinnie (organ) & Bedroom Community
Royal Festival Hall, 24 September 2015

The 2014 restoration of the influential and controversial Royal Festival Hall’s 1954 organ has seen a resurgence of organ recitals, although these are not (yet?) up to the frequency of the long-running Wednesday at 5.55 series that introduced the London public to continental organists and organ music. The title of the organ restoration project, and of the subsequent recital series, is ‘Pull out all the stops’, a reference an episode in the organ’s history. It refers to WP_20150924_20_52_21_Proa 1971 performance of Ligeti’s extraordinary organ work Volumina given by Xavier Darasse. The opening of Volumina requires the organist to pull out every single stop on the organ (something rarely, if ever, done), depress as many manual and pedal keys as he can by flattening his arms on the keys, and only then to switch the organ on. After a couple of seconds of an enormous crescendo as the bellows began to activate the pipes, all the fuses on the organ blew, prematurely ending the piece, and the recital.

James McVinnie. Photo © Magnús Andersen

This season’s offering opened with a rather different take on the traditional organ recital. One focus of the Southbank Centre since the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall organ has been to encourage contemporary music and alternative uses for the organ. Organist James McVinnie and fellow members of the tantalisingly named Bedroom Community (an Icelandic musicians’ cooperative and record company) offered a wide range of music ranging from Bach to a specially commissioned piece.  James McVinnie has an impeccably traditional organist’s background of prestige cathedral posts and the usual concert and recital circuit (including one of the series of opening recitals on the restored RFH organ) but is increasingly attracted to contemporary music, with commissions from several leading composers.

Clearly intended to showcase Bedroom Community’s various members and recordings, the evening opened with something of a late night folk club atmosphere with a solo singer/guitarist. I am not sure if his extraordinarily quivery voice was a well-practiced technique, or the result of understandably nerves, but it didn’t do his music many favours. A few more members of the Bedroom Community came on stage for a double bass and electronics accompaniment to a film of murmurating starlings followed by the first real top-class contemporary compositions, with three pieces from Nico Muhly – notably his ‘Rev’d Mustard his installation prelude’, an ear-ticklingly repetitive fantasia for solo organ (which can be heard here – Rev’d Mustard his installation) and ‘Beaming Music’ for organ and marimba. Organ and viola combined for Daníel Bjarnason’s ‘Air to breath’, the final movement from Processions.

Bryce Dessner’s ‘Median organs’ (a Southbank commission) was given its world première, a piece built on repetitive high octaves with lower chords (a similar formula to the Rev’d Mustard piece) and giving the many colours of the organ an airing. Repetition was something of a feature of the evening, as demonstrated again by the organ solo version of Philip Glass’s ‘Mad rush’ that concluded the first half. This was originally composed for organ for the visit of the Dali Lama to the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York. The dramatic contrasts of volume between the two alternative sections were considerably more powerful in this organ interpretation than in the more usually heard piano version.

A contemporary take on a Renaissance piece, and the Renaissance technique of division playing came with Riccardo Rognoni’s Diminutions on Cipriano de Rore’s Anchor che col partire played by Liam Byrne on a heavily amplified viola da gamba, organ and electronics. Bach’s delicate chorale prelude Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, morphed into Valgeir Sigurðsson’s variations of the same piece, ‘I call to you’. The only hint at a traditional organ recital came with James McVinnie’s refreshingly individual interpretation of Bach’s monumental Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, building to an enormous climax where most, if not all, of the stops were pulled out. Three further pieces by Valgeir Sigurðsson completed the evening. As with all these RFH organ concerts, there was a pre-concert discussion with three of the performers and the organ’s curator William McVicker.

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