The 1735 Spitalfields Richard Bridge organ

The 1735 Spitalfields Richard Bridge organ
Margaret Phillips
Christ Church, Spitalfields, 29 September 2016

One of the most important musical events in London in 2015 was the long-awaited opening of the 1735 Richard Bridge organ (restored by William Drake) in the Hawksmoor designed Christ Church, Spitalfields. For many decades it was the largest organ in the UK, and its musical importance is immeasurable. My review of the gala opening recital, given by (the now sadly, late) John Scott, and information about the restoration and an organ specification can be found here.

In the first of a short series of recitals, Margaret Phillips played what she admitted at the start was a “perverse” programme, including only one English piece in a concert titled ‘The Eighteenth Century English Organ’. She explained that her emphasis was on the many different colours of the Spitalfields organ. Although there is an enormous repertoire of English pieces of the period specifically written for the colours to be found on organs like this, her programme included pieces from France, Spain, The Netherlands and Germany, together with a transcription of a Handel overture, probably intended for harpsichord or chamber organ. Her choice of programme was a helpful demonstration of my own long-held belief that an organ designed specifically for one repertoire can prove to be effective in a wide variety of music; as opposed to the eclectic organ, designed to perform a wide range of repertoires, but which rarely works for any of them. The variety of stops on English 18th century organs makes it a very useful basis for such an instrument.

The opening Prelude and Fugue in G minor, an early work by Bach, demonstrated the choruses of the Bridge organ and, in the flurries of arpeggios, the distinctive tonal colour of the fifth-comma meantone tuning. Although the programme was chosen to avoid most of the keys that do not sound well in meantone temperament, its most important characteristic was evident: the purity and stillness of long-held final chords. In equal temperament, final organ chords are restless affairs, with lots of rhythmic movement within the sound, caused by the beating of out of tune intervals. Buxtehude’s Passacaglia in D minor was a further demonstrated of the beauty of meantone temperament. It was given a subdued interpretation, the four sections gently increasing in volume before the quite conclusion – an interpretation based on the idea that the 28 repetitions of the theme (in four groups of seven) represent the phases of the moon.

Some of the most distinctive colours of the organ were used in the Suite du 5e ton by Jacques Boyvin, published in 1689. Although the Spitalfields organ has many stops akin to those found in contemporary French organs, it also lacks several important sounds. Playing a complete Suite, rather than selecting individual movements, rather exposed the bits that are missing, not least a 16’ manual stop. We heard several examples of the distinctively reedy tierce sounds to be found on the Bridge organ, as well as some of the reed stops.

The Obra de falsas cromáticas de 1o tono by an anonymous 17th century Spanish composer is an unusual piece with lengthy sequences of falling and rising motifs. It was played on the recently installed Quintadena stop, a unusual stop for 18th century English organs and, incidentally, one not found on Spanish organs of the period. It was followed by another Spanish piece, the equally well known Tiento de 1o tono de mano derecha by Pablo Bruna. This featured the Cornet, Bassoon and Trumpet stops. Probably sensibly, Margaret Phillips omitted the extensive and often rather curious ornamentation that Spanish composers of this period expected players to add. One Spanish organ composer went so far as to suggest that the player might occasionally leave a note unornamented!

After the keyboard transcription of Handel’s Overture in Rodelinda (probably arranged by his publisher, Walsh), Margaret Phillips played two examples of the 20th century neo-classical school of organ composition: Klaas Bolt’s Variations on Mijn God, waar zal ik henengaan and Hugo Distler’s Vier Spielstücke. Both were inventive and lively works, using a wide range of registrations.

The final piece was Bach’s powerful Fantasia super Komm, Heiliger Geist, the lack of a 16’ pedal reed being the only very slight distraction. The English organ of the period had no pedalboard, but in the restoration of the Bridge organ, William Drake added a three-stop pedal division with an 8’ trumpet stop as the only reed.

Margaret Phillips plays in a commendably unmannered style, avoiding elements of personal interpretation or display, and maintaining a methodical pulse throughout. It was an ideal way to demonstrate how versatile the 18th century organ can be in performing, with a degree of musical conviction, the music of the rest of Europe. The Spitalfields organ is an extraordinary instrument with its enormous range of tone colours and very Georgian and rather gentlemanly and reserved style. It deserves to me amongst London’s musical highlights, and recitals like this are an important part of developing that position. Further organ recital dates, here and elsewhere, can be found here.

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