Bach organ music

‘Pull out all the Stops’
Robert Quinney, organ
Royal Festival Hall, 3 February 2017

Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 ;
Vater unser im Himmelreich, BWV 682 ;
Four Duets BWV 802-805;
Prelude and Fugue in C, BWV 547
Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BWV 548 ;
Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her, BWV 769;
Prelude and Fugue in G, BWV 541

In years long past, the Royal Festival used to run a weekly ‘Wednesday at 5.55’ organ recital series, attracting performers from around the world and introducing many in the rather closeted world of English organists to music and interpretations from many different countries. Despite the enormous amount of money spent of the refurbishment of the organ (and the hall), that remarkable series has now been reduced to just four organ recitals a year, albeit full evening, rather than post-work, events. The Festival Hall organ was built in 1954 in a deliberately eclectic style, reflecting the historic organs from many different cultures, most notably the German baroque tradition that had hitherto been little understood in the UK. Along with the hall itself, it was designed to be acoustically precise. Recent alterations to both hall and organ and added slightly more of an acoustic bloom to the sound, and allowed some of the previously almost inaudible low notes to be heard.

The organ restoration project was promoted as ‘Pull out all the stops’, something that organists need little encouragement to do. Robert Quinney’s thunderous opening of THE Toccata and Fugue in D minor did just that, albeit just by pressing a button, rather than actually pulling out any stops. His clean and crisp playing brought a clarity to many of Bach’s textures, although his fondness for sheer volume  inevitably led to some very muddled textures as he added stop after stop.

Each half of the programme enclosed examples of Bach’s more complex offerings between well-known Preludes and Fugues. After the opening Toccata we heard the extraordinary chorale prelude on Vater unser im Himmelreich (the Lutheran Lord’s Prayer) from the 1739 Clavierübung collection. It is one of the most complex of all his organ works and, I can assure you, one of the hardest to play. Bach cleverly inserts a canonic treatment of the chorale melody into a trio structure, making for a five part texture with each hand playing both a trio line as well as the chorale melody. It was perhaps not the best topic to open the pre-concert talk between the RFH organ curator William McVicker and Robert Quinney, a talk on the mathematical and scientific aspects of Bach’s compositions that become increasingly complex and intense as it went on.

It was followed by an oddity from the Clavierübung, the four duets inserted after the sequence of chorale preludes and before the famous concluding Fugue in E flat, known in the UK as the St Anne Fugue. Scholars have devoted many hours to trying to explain why these four pieces are included, one theory being that it was just to make the total number of pieces in the collection up to a significant number, Bach’s use of number theory being one of the by-ways of the pre-concert talk. There is also a rather more valid theory that they are intended as much as sacred commentaries as the other pieces in the collection, something that Quinney didn’t seem to agree with, considering his lightweight and overly speedy interpretations. The tinkly registrations, here and in many other pieces, seemed a bit of a hangover from the neo-baroque days of the 1970s t0 90s. We now have far more understanding of the central German organs (of Saxony and Thuringia) that Bach principally wrote for. They have very different sounds and registration practices than those of pre-Buxtehude North Germany that were somehow taken up by organists in earlier times.

The second half was centred on the Canonic Variation on the Christmas chorale, Von Himmel hoch, another example of Bach at his most complex and intense, although clearly something that the rather cerebral Quinney relishes. There is debate about the order of the five variations, Quinney chosing the one where the variation that seems most obviously to conclude the cycle is placed in the middle rather than the end. The massive concluding climax, and Quinney’s long pause before continuing, seemed aimed at encouraging somebody to start applause in the wrong place. Curiously this happened during the earlier four duets when somebody in the cheap seats at the side burst into applause after the third duet. Rather than just looking at him pityingly (it has to have been a ‘him’), many in the audience joined him in a sad collective inability to count up to four.

One thing that organists (and the rather particular type of person who attends organ recitals) love is noise, and we got that a plenty from Quinney. The fugues generally started with light and insubstantial registrations and by process of deft manipulation of the arrays of little registration-aid buttons between the four keyboards of the RFH hall, inexorably built up and up to finish with ear (and musical texture) shattering proportions. The RFH is one of the widest organs in the world, spread across the width of the rear stage (it was originally intended to be unseen behind a screen). It is the complete opposite of any of the organs that Bach would have known which, like all organs up until fairly recently, were vertical rather than horizontal. However, Quinney accented the vast spread of the organ by choosing registrations that spread across the entire width in super-stereo style.

Quinney’s career path has been glittering, ranging from Eton, via King’s College Cambridge, assistant posts at Westminster Cathedral and Abbey, a brief director of music sojourn at Peterborough Cathedral before arriving at an academic and music director post at New College, Oxford. But his playing is very far from academic or learned, which I think is a shame. He is clearly somebody who thinks about the music he is playing, but that doesn’t come over in performance where pandering to the not always impeccable taste of organ concert goers seems to be the principal aim. That was perhaps evidenced by his bouncing back up the 13 steps to the organ console after just one curtain call, to burst into an even louder and more virtuosic version of Bach, courtesy of Dupre.

The audience loved it.


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