A Giant Reborn: the restored 1735 Richard Bridge organ of Christ Church, Spitalfields

A Giant Reborn
The restored 1735 Richard Bridge organ of Christ Church, Spitalfields, London
Gerard Brooks
Fugue State Records FSRCD010. 2CDs. 77’02+66’35

Music by Prelleur, Handel, Greene, Stanley, Bull, Barrett, Purcell, Croft, Heron, Boyce, Walond, Arne, Nares, Reading, James, Keeble

Spitalfields CD.jpgThe completion of the restoration of the famous 1735 Richard Bridge organ in Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, Spitalfields was one of the most important musical events in London during 2015. My review of John Scott’s opening recital, and details of the organ, can be seen here. Tragically it was one of the last recitals that John Scott gave before his death . Equally tragically, the master organ builder William Drake, the finest restorer of historic organs in the UK, died the year before the organ’s completion, so never heard what must now stand as his memorial.

Christ Church, Spitalfields was built between 1714 and 1729 as part of the ’Fifty New Churches’ Act of Parliament of 1711. It is one of the six East London churches WP_20150605_18_45_24_Prodesigned by the famed Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. The organ was built in 1735 by Richard Bridge, who became one of the leading organ builders of the day. Spitalfields seems to have been only his second commission, perhaps explaining the comparatively low price of £600 for such a substantial instrument. For the following 100 years or so, it was the largest organ in the country. It suffered the inevitable changes over the years, but retained enough of its original pipework to form the basis for a historically based reconstruction, returning it broadly to its original specification and construction. It was dismantled in 1998 while the church was being restored and was then restored to its 1735 specification, with very few concessions. Its completion in 2015 makes this by far the most important pre-1800 organ in the UK.

This is the first recording of the restored organ. As well as being a comprehensive account of the instrument’s forces, it is also a fascinating reflection of the organ music in 18th century England, covering most of the principal composers, many of which are little known outside of their organ compositions. Rather like 17th and 18th century France, organ publications were generally aimed at a general market, and did not necessarily reflect the music that the composers would have played themselves. Unlike France, many English organists were employed as much in pleasure gardens, theatres, and opera houses as in churches, so the music of the period has a distinctly secular feel to it. It is a curiosity of the English repertoire of this period and earlier that practically all the pieces are called ‘Voluntary’.

The pieces are not in chronological order, which makes appreciating development over the period tricky, and there are some important composers missing, most notably, John Bennett. The first CD opens with five little-known Voluntaries by the first organist of the church, Peter Preller. It is followed by one of the best known of Handel’s Organ Concertos, the so-called ‘Cuckoo & Nightingale’ from the ‘Second Set’ of concertos concocted from six of Handel’s Concerto Grossi by his publisher Walsh with very little, if any, input from Handel himself. The best known organ composer of the period completes CD1, with three Voluntaries and an Overture by John Stanley. CD2 features 12 composers, include a rather bizarre cameo appearance by John Bull, composing more than 100 years before the others. His ‘Battle Coranto’ is played in a totally inauthentic manner to demonstrate the organs’ Drum pedal and reeds.

One distinct, but often misunderstood feature of organ music of this period is that it is frequently written in just two parts, in true Baroque style. English organs of the period did not have pedal divisions, which has led to several re-constructions for ‘modern’ ABW Spitalfieldsorgans with pedals parts and infilling of the two-part texture. This produces a sound world that is completely alien to the period. In this fine recording, Gerard Brooks avoids any such nonsense, and plays with an understanding of period performance and technique. His occasional additions to the text are well-judged and appropriate to the period. He is the curator/organist of the Bridge organ and has had the chance to get to know it more than any other organist. He plays relatively ‘straight’, avoiding personal mannerisms or unnecessary additions to the music, making this a recording that will take repeated listening. There are a few issues of registration and ornamentation that I could mention, but won’t, because the importance of this recording is not in the performance, but in the organ. Brooks is known for his performances of the much later, and very different, French Romantic repertoire, but has clearly made the most of his time at Spitalfields to further his knowledge of this important English repertoire.

The recording gives the organ a rather more powerful aural presence than is heard in the building itself, where the sound is rather restrained and ‘gentlemanly’, in line with contemporary descriptions of the sound of the English organ. Brooks’ use of very full registrations adds to this sense of power. To get a more realistic sense of the organ’s volume, it is worth checking the volume setting with a CD you know, and then turning the volume down a little before starting this one, particularly as the opening track uses every stop on the Great manual, a registration that is unlikely to have been used at the time. Unusually, the organ has two 8′ Open Diapasons, two 4′ Principals and two  8′ Trumpets, and these are often used together.

Another distinctive feature of the organ is the 5th comma meantone temperament. This makes itself felt on occasion (for example in the opening A minor Voluntary and in the B minor Voluntary on CD2 track 20/21) but the more important aspect is not the occasional ‘out-of-tune’ notes but the occasional feeling of harmonic tension and the pure sound of the final chords in the useable keys, without the restlessly interfering internal beats that equal temperament adds to chords.

The CD production is excellent, with good quality photographs. The detailed programme notes give information about the organ and its restoration written by Nicholas Thistlethwaite who, along with Gerard Brooks, was organ consultant to the project team. Registrations of all the pieces are provided, giving a useful indication as to how the detailed (but sometimes rather confusing) registration instructions of the period can be adapted to suit the organ and the acoustic. Rather less succesful is the rather intense essay (by John Collins) on ‘The English Organ Voluntary’ and descriptions of the pieces performed. In a rather nice touch, the organ was hand pumped for the recording by Joost de Boer, who succeeded William Drake in completing the Spitalfields organ and continues to manage Drake’s organ building company.

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