Philip Scriven’s project to play the complete organ works of J S Bach in 26 recitals (ending in June) began in style on Wednesday October 5th with an evening concert in which the School’s resident organist was joined by the Chapel Choir and the Merriman Trumpet Ensemble. Marcus Pashley directed these forces in the famous opening of Bach’s ‘Christmas Oratorio’ in which the timpani of Kevin Weaver bouncily underpinned the words, so appropriate for the launch of this exciting project:
“Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage”
Inevitably, perhaps, the first organ piece on the marathon journey was the most famous, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor with its famous opening in parallel octaves. Ironically, the majority of Bach scholars now believe it is either not by Bach or is a later transcription of an instrumental work and Philip Scriven was brave enough to inform the audience about this in his brief but disarming spoken introduction. There have been many orchestrations of this famous work, most notably that by Stokowski, and Cranleigh’s new Mander organ, under Philip’s expert hands and feet, has as much variety of tone and dynamic as Stoki’s ‘fabulous Philadelphians’ did.
After two chorale preludes (BWV 731, given an especially loving rendition) and the delightful ‘Gigue’ fugue (described by the organist as ‘a bit of a work-out’ for the legs) came the Prelude and Fugue in D major from Bach’s Weimar period with its fascinating harmonic progressions in the fugue, played, as it were, with a subtle ear as well as dexterous fingers. Philip admitted this piece was ‘terrifying’ with its opening scale on the pedals leading to the obsessive arpeggios at the end.
The large video screen allowed the large audience to see the fast finger-work on the three keyboards and the excellent lighting meant we could also see Philip’s dancing feet. In the audience were many Old Cranleighans (for example a 2 North House captain from 1985) and the Maecenas of the Mander himself, Hamish Ogston. There were also several organ experts, some following the scores of the more complex pieces and leading me to feel most unqualified to describe in detail such a specialist art. The pre-programming of the mighty Mander means that much of the organist’s work is done in advance, planning the combination of stops and registers for various sections of a piece, thus assuring that Mr Scriven pulled out all the stops to display how Bach can be served by such a versatile 21st century instrument is only a metaphor.
After the interval Philip Scriven began with the Prelude and Fugue in E minor, in which the fugue is known as the ‘Wedge’ on account of the opening theme of the fugue, which starts with one note, then with two notes either side, forms a minor third and then gradually widens to an octave. This epic piece shows how a Bach journey like this is an intellectual as well as a musical challenge: little wonder that great minds like Schweitzer and Einstein were drawn to this music. The male voices of the Chapel Choir were added to the sublime ‘Wachet Auf’ chorale prelude with its sometimes anachronistically heart-easing accompaniment played more jauntily and swiftly than usual, as Bach surely intended.
After an ethereal chorale prelude, the final solo piece was BWV 572: a Fantasia from the Weimar period and one which truly captures what we can imagine were the qualities of Bach’s own improvisations and which illustrates his use of the organ pedals as an integral part of the composition. And he was only about 26 when he reached this level of mastery as an organ composer. Philip Scriven explained how scholars relate the structure of this ‘Pièce d’Orgue’ to the Holy Trinity (number symbolism in Bach is rife) but I was more stuck by its musical modernity: the opening flute ripples prefiguring Smetana’s ‘Vltava’ and the final section reminding me less of the French composers such as de Grigny and Raison whose music Bach laboriously copied by hand, and more of the later organist-composers he inspired such as Widor and Vierne.
As a delightful bonus (and to illustrate the skills of Philip’s growing number of organ pupils) Tom Hollister joined Philip for a four-handed piece, ‘Toot Suite’ by PDQ Bach. The comic initials are a clue that, unlike Johann Bernard Bach and the other numerous composer-relations of JS, this Bach is a comic invention, by the Iowa-born Peter Schickele (now 76). This suite was composed for calliope (steam organ) thus the need for organ performers to add a whistle (supplied by Tom). The opening ‘Preloud’ involved a cipher note being extended as Tom fell asleep at the keyboard; the ‘OK Chorale’ is based on ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’; and the ‘Fuga Vulgaris’ on ‘The Volga Boat Song’.
The concert ended with the final chorus of the ‘Christmas Oratorio’, ‘Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen’ the chorale melody being the same as of ‘O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden’, from Bach’s ‘St Matthew Passion’. Tony Adie here led the trumpet trio with remarkable virtuosity.
Concert two of the 26 is at 12.30pm on Tuesday 11th October and this first concert showed how lucky the School is to have the opportunity to follow this epic Bach journey.