Peter Williams Memorial Recital
David Ponsford & Ghislaine Reece-Trapp
St George’s, Hanover Square. 24 May 2018
Peter Williams (1937–2016) was a renowned Bach scholar, organist, harpsichordist, music and publications editor, and writer. His notable publications include seminal works on Bach, Bach’s organ music, and historic organs. One of his most important books was his 1966 ‘European Organ 1450-1850’. a key introduction to the different styles of the wider European organ culture, published at a time when most UK organists had little experience of continental organs. This was followed in 1993 by ‘The Organ in Western Culture, 750-1250’. His three-volume ‘Organ Music of J. S. Bach’ (Cambridge University Press 1980, revised as a single volume in 2003) is still essential reading for anybody wanting to understand the complex background of Bach’s most famous repertoire. His most recent book, ‘Bach: A Musical Biography‘ was published posthumously in 2016, a few months after his death. Some of the obituaries can be found here and here and here.
At the suggestion of David Ponsford, a former pupil, a memorial recital was held at St George’s, Hanover Square on the 2012 Richards, Fowkes & Co organ, an instrument that Williams knew and approved of. The recital was supported by The Royal College of Organists, The British Institute of Organ Studies (two institutions that Peter Williams was actively involved with), the London Bach Society, and the church. Ponsford was joined by Ghislaine Reece-Trapp, an impressive young (and, sadly, it is necessary to stress) female organist, who already seems set on an impressive career in music.
Ghislaine Reece-Trapp opened with one of William Byrd’s lesser-known Fantasias from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (T457/BK63). Probably intended for harpsichord or virginals rather than organ, the first of its many sections opened with a simple five-note scale, perhaps a reminder that Peter Williams was scornful of the dominance of scales in present day music teaching. Although her very full registration of the latter part of the Fantasia might not have been familiar to Byrd, it did reinforce the power of Byrd’s music in a way that the usual rather weedy registrations never achieve. She later played Jean Langlais’s five-movement Suite Médiévale en forme de messe basse, finding some excellent registrations to reflect the distinctive style of the French 20th-century organ that Langlais composed for. With every movement infused with plainchant, Ghislaine Reece-Trapp caught the atmospheric move brilliantly, ranging from the thundering opening processional to the subdued central Elévation.
In between the Byrd and Langlais, David Ponsford played his first set of Bach pieces, the Pièce d’orgue (BWV572) and An Wasserflüssen Babylon (BWV 653). Considering Ponsford’s specialism in French Baroque music, it was a shame that he didn’t attempt the registration of the Pièce d’orgue in a French style, as suggested by some commentators. He concluded the recital with more Bach, with five pieces from the Clavierübung III. Peter Williams could have spoken for hours in his distinctive exploratory and questioning style, about each one of these pieces. I would have been particularly interested in his comments on the speed relationship of the middle section of the final Fuga a 5 con pedale pro organo pleno (known in the UK as the ‘St Anne Fugue’). Like many organists, Ponsford played it at a much faster underlying pulse than the opening section, and on a much quieter registration – a practice that many consider not supported by the score.
I think Peter Williams would also have had thoughts and questions on the earlier Pièce d’orgue, notably on Bach’s use of a pedal note that did not exist on the organs of his time – or, indeed, today. He would probably have pointed out that the crochet followed by a rest at the conclusion of the majestic central part, clearly implies a short final chord, rather than the usually heard extended chord.
It was entirely appropriate that a recital dedicated to the ever-questioning Peter Williams should raise questions like these – something he was very good at.