For the second time in a week Chapel was home to a major event marking the sesquicentennial celebrations: the first-ever orchestral concert to be held in a building newly and magnificently renovated. Over the course of the evening orchestra and soloists alike were able to relish an acoustic that showed off both intimacy and grandeur to an audience seated in comfortable pews (for once no oxymoron) facing for the first time the Mander organ framed by the imposing brick arch of the west end. The Merriman Concert Orchestra, expertly led by Head of Strings Kevin Weaver, clearly felt – and sounded – at home in these new surroundings. The evening was stylishly conducted by Director of Cranleigh Music Marcus Pashley, who also played and directed the Baroque works from the harpsichord,
The opening piece, Alessandro Marcello’s Oboe Concerto in D minor, is one of the best known works of the Baroque era, to no small extent because Bach transcribed it for solo harpsichord. Fayruz Megdiche, a Sixth Form Music Scholar whose musical career outside Cranleigh is already beginning to take off in a most impressive fashion, was to treat us to a performance that would have been a treat for Marcello himself, in any of his capacities of diplomat, artist or poet. The balance between soloist and orchestra was nicely judged, the acoustic giving the strings a bloom which never verged on over-reverberation. It was an acoustic that Fayruz exploited to fine effect as she brought out the elegiac beauty of the first movement, the noble pathos of the second and the brilliance of the finale with commendable technical skill and sensitivity of expression: the audience was captivated. A fine start to a memorable evening.
Bach’s Cantata BWV 170 (Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust) for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, for all its brevity and economical scoring, is nevertheless a genuine cantata, containing exclusively madrigalian verse and requiring an alto soloist only – a choir is not even needed for a concluding chorale. Bach probably had at his disposal a capable alto singer who six weeks later had to sing Cantata 35 and twelve weeks later Cantata 169. If Sixth Form Music Scholar Theo Golden knew of a similar impending commitment, he certainly wasn’t showing it on Friday evening. Rather, he was exhibiting all the skills which had won him last year’s Senior Helen Wareham vocal competition. The opening aria, pastoral and contemplative in nature, saw him at a confident best that he was to maintain throughout the following four movements. A secco recitative was followed by an unorthodoxly-scored second aria in which the continuo is silent but the organ has a strangely meandering chromatic part and in which Theo coped admirably with a low register not easy for someone of his age. A second recitative with string accompaniment directed our attention away from the world and towards God, leading to a final aria described by Alfred Dürr as “a triumphant song of renunciation of the world and longing for heaven”. Bach’s triumph certainly, but also Theo’s: a more moving tribute to his recently-deceased grandmother would be difficult to imagine.
Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ is scored for comparatively small forces: solo organ, timpani and string orchestra. Between the commissioning of the piece and its completion in 1938, the composer was profoundly influenced by the death of a friend and colleague. The piece consists of a single continuous movement with seven different tempo marks delineating the sections which often differ substantially in style, tone and texture. The reawakening of Poulenc’s dormant Catholicism is evident in the spirituality which pervades all seven sections: a spirituality which Philip Scriven brought out to poignant yet ultimately uplifting effect in music reminiscent at times of Bach and Mozart and even, perhaps, the great Romantics. Two large screens allowed us, here as in the second half, to admire his formidable dexterity on both keyboard and pedals.
The second half of the concert gave Philip the chance to show off the Mander organ to stunning effect. Camille Saint Saëns’s Symphony No. 3 in C minor, the ‘Organ Symphony’, was almost certainly the best known of the evening’s pieces, in some cases via a recording in which the organ and orchestra have been recorded in different venues. Not at Cranleigh. We could hear to best possible effect one of the crowning glories of the composer’s prodigious life in music. One myth the programme note urged us to dispel was that the work was in some way an ‘organ concerto’ in the same way as Poulenc’s. There is no virtuosic writing for the instrument and it rarely appears on its own except for the famously massive chords which herald the finale – and which were allegedly audible on the School golf course. Rather, Saint Saëns uses the organ sparingly for its colour and power within the orchestral texture. “I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again.” So wrote the composer. Luckily for Cranleigh, the latter half of that statement is not true of its organist in residence.