New William Drake organ at Chelsea Old Church

Celebrity Opening Concert – William Drake organ
Nathan Laube

Chelsea Old Church, 19 January 2020

Opening recitals on new organs raise several issues. The performance must, of course, be excellent in itself, regardless of the occasion. But the organ also needs to be demonstrated in a manner that future organ recitals do not need to. I have given several recitals (including, for example, at St John’s, Smith Square) where I have used little more than half of the available stops, to produce a sound that the composer might just recognise. But for an opening recital, a thorough exploration of the sounds of the new instrument is expected. If the organ is built in a specific historic style, the expectation may be that the music of that period dominates. But many organs are built in an eclectic style, capable, in theory, of coping with music from several different historical periods.

The new William Drake organ in Chelsea Old Church is a broadly eclectic instrument, tonally based on English organs from the mid-Victorian period (details here). Around the 1850s, the English organ reached a stage where, in comparison with its generally much larger continental cousins, a wide range of repertoire could be accommodated not least because, unlike it’s earlier English predecessors up to around 1830, a full compass pedal and Swell division became normal.

The American organist Nathan Laube was the recitalist, giving a technically assured and musically impressive performance. His opening piece was, arguably, the only one that actually focussed on the mid-Victorian period that influenced the organ. His performance of Mendelssohn’s 1845 Sonata in A (Op65/3) showed off the principal choruses of the organ, underpinned by the bold 16′ pedal Trombone. He cleverly avoided the usually inevitable premature applause at the end of the Con moto maestoso movement before the gentle start of Andante tranquillo final movement by moving quickly from one to the other. This set of Sonatas was commissioned by an English publisher and was intended, after a fashion, for English organs, many of which Mendelssohn had become familiar with during his visits to London.

Nathan Laube followed this with a slightly earlier, but far more musically advanced Mendelssohn piece, the virtuosic piano Variations sérieuses (Op54) in his own arrangement for organ. This demonstrated the technique of the performer, and the range of colourful sounds of the new organ, including the specifically Victorian stops like the Viola, Gamba, Voix Celeste and the Flauto Traverso. This was followed by the only true English piece of the evening, William Byrd’s Fantasia (BK13). I rather think that Nathan Laube played this in organ-demonstration mode, the several changes of registrations and crescendo of sound not, I suggest, being otherwise entirely authentic or, indeed, necessary. The final cadence of this piece was the only time I really noticed that the organ was in equal temperament, the unsettling inner movement of the final chord replacing the calm resolution of a more authentic early tuning system. Evidence suggests that English organs of the mid-Victorian era would not have been tuned to equal temperament, so this is one aspect where historic authenticity has been sacrificed, another being the provision of registration aids of much more recent vintage.

It was something of a surprise (to me, st least) that Nicolaus Bruhns monumental ‘Great’ Praeludium in E minor. composed for the massive 17th century North German organs, started at about the same volume as the end of the Byrd Fantasia, which was composed for an organ with very few stops. Although the sound world was very different from that Bruhns might have known, the piece did demonstrate several of the more traditionally historic sounds of the organ and the interplay between the three manuals. The choir division is placed in what would have been called a ‘chair’ case, separate from the main case and speaking more closely into the body of the church. This was not a Victorian concept, but is a workable solution to fitting a three manual organ into a limited case. It also opens up possibilities, particularly for the early 17th-century English repertoire when such double cases were common.

After an interval, we stayed in a slightly later Germany for Bach’s Passacaglia (BWV582), the frequent changes of registration again, I think, intended to demonstrate different aspects of the organ. The rest of the programme was devoted to French music, a slightly unusual programme choice in terms of the nature of the  organ, but one that nonetheless was musically satisfying and again demonstrated the range of possibilities of an eclectic organ. Four movements from Guilan elegant Parisian Suite de Second Ton was followed by two mid-20th-century French masterpieces, Jehan Alain’s gloriously evocative Deuxième Fantasie and Maurice Duruflé’s homage to Alain, the Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d’ALAIN (Op7).

Although the packed church affected the acoustics, the organ sounded splendid in the curiously shaped church. Of medieval foundation, the relatively small church was bombed during the last war and largely rebuilt, incorporating surviving historic elements. The nave is rectangular in shape, but is sideways on to the ‘normal’ church nave layout, opening onto the historic chancel and side chapels. The organ is centrally positioned in the rear gallery of the nave, but that doesn’t align with the geometry of the chancel and two side chapels.

Assuming the Nathan Laube only had the chance to rehearse in an empty church, the change in acoustic in performance to a sound-absorbing audience must have been a shock. Subsequent organ recitals are, sadly, unlikely to attract such a large audience, but the organ will sound better in a more sympathetic acoustic.

Of course, this was ultimately all about the organ. Although clearly designed for a wide range of traditional Church of England service playing, it does reflect a specific period of English organ design, one that is usefully eclectic in its basic design. Until his death in 2014, William Drake had built a strong reputation as a meticulous designer and builder of organs, producing instruments with sensitive actions and voicing finished to outstanding standards, both tonally and visually. His instruments included many important restorations of historic organs and new organs in historic style, including Buckingham Palace, the Palace of Westminster, St Giles-in-the-Fields, and the largest English organ of its time (1735), at Christchurch, Spitalfields which he sadly did not live to see completed. The St Giles-in-the-Fields organ includes pipework dating back to the 17th-century. For information about a forthcoming sequence of recitals at St Giles-in-the-Fields on International Early Music Day, 21 March, there, see here.

The firm continues with the same staff, now headed by Joost de Boer. It is clear that the standard of tonal and visual excellence set by William Drake has continued into its new incarnation. This organ is a valuable addition, not only to the congregation of Chelsea Old Church, but also to the increasingly impressive range of organs available in London for students and recitalists. All those involved in this impressive project are to be congratulated. The only problem evident from the opening recital is noise from the busy Thames-side road just outside the church, the fly-path into Heathrow airport,  =and the use of the Thames as the permitted helicopter route through London. Not an easy issue to resolve.

Photo: ABW