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October 07, 2007

Organ Gala

How does one describe a couple of hours of stunning music performed by top musicians on instruments that are simply awesome? Not easily obviously. Last night we had the pleasure of listening to a programme performed by David Sanger, Carleton Etherington and Benjamin Nicholas on the three Abbey organs.

The Mighty Milton certainly strutted its stuff with a Bach Sinfonia "Wir danken Dir, Gott", a Wolstenholme "Allegretto", Franck's "Piece Heroique", Lloyd Webber's "Benedictus", Gardonyi's "Mozart Changes, Bingham's "Roulade", Egjebar's "Melody from Jarne in Darlana" and the "Finale" from Sympohonie VI by Widor all played by David Sanger. Carleton put the little Elliot to work and filled the Abbey with its gentler tones and Sweelink's "Ballo del Granduca" and partnered the Milton most effectively in the Concerto Op 4 No 6 by Handel. Anyone who has heard "The cuckoo and the nightingale" will recognise the form and the balance between the two instruments with Ben Nicholas on the Milton and Carleton on the Elliot was absolutely stunning.

And then there was the Glorious Grove - exuberant, brilliantly toned and magnificently played by Carleton and Ben. The hundred and twenty year old action certainly got a workout as they performed "Fantaisie in E Flat" by Saint-Saens (Ben driving) and "Concert Overture in C Minor" by Hollins with Carleton at the manuals.

The only problem I have with listening to such talented performers is this - I go green with envy at their ability to make such glorious music, and sick as a dog at the ease with which they apparently do it while I can't even play two notes together properly. Watching them perform is a treat, they play with feeling, yet are technically brilliant and at the same time pour their passion into the sounds they demand from these instruments. Carleton sits upright and focussed, his face immobile - but the passion pours from his fingers and resounds in the music, Ben throws his very being into the instrument and David Sanger plays with passion. What more can one say.

For those that do not know these instruments (What a treat you have instore when one day you do meet them!) the Milton Organ was first constructed for Magdallen College, Oxford by Robert Dallam in 1631 and most of that original piepwork is still in the instrument. It moved to Hampton Court in 1654 under the Commonwealth and was played there by the poet John MIlton before it moved briefly back to Oxford and then to the Abbey in 1734. Since then it has been rebuilt and enlarged by various famous organ builders including John Holland (1796), "Father" Willis (1848), J W Walker (1948) and finally Kenneth Jones in 1997 to reach its present size, shape and sound.

The Grove was built as an exhibition instrument for the 1885 Inventions Exhibition and is remarkable for the fact that it remains "as built". It was designed to be taken apart and moved from exhibition to exhibition as an advert for its builders Michell and Thynne. Unfortunately their business didn't succeed and so this unique instrument was sold and donated to the Abbey where it fills the North Transept. It has no "case" and all the action and pipes are on display with the console to one side - and the console is unusual because it employs four different types of "action" - intended to show prospective customers what they could have from the firm. The organists say it is difficult to play - but that is more than compensated for by the brilliance of the sound it produces and, if you want to see them angry, just suggest changing it!

The "baby" of the trio is the little Elliot. Built in 1813 by Thomas Elliot as a Chamber Organ for a grand house near here it was donated to the Abbey in 1918 and used in the "Mission Hall" until the 1950's. It has only five stops, but has one of the sweetest sounds and is frequently used to accompany small orchestral concerts as the "continuo" - a task it is often more than man enough to provide. On its own it can fill the Abbey with its sound, but it is more frequently used in the Lady Chapel where it can accompany the singing of a smaller congregation beautifully. Fully restored and rebuilt in 200-2001 it is now good for the forseeable future and many more concerts.

Which leaves only the Grove needing a major overhaul, something it has never had. Conserved in 1981, only some parts were "repaired" and the instrument cleaned. It now needs serious work and we would like to raise it around ten feet so that it stands at the same level as the Milton. The action probably needs to be completely rebuilt to make it playable with less acrobatics on the part of the organist (Some pieces require the organist to have two people to help him drawing "stops" when he needs a change of tone or pace in a hurry!) and the whole needs to have its windchests, pipes and all the many linkages fully restored. How much it will cost is a matter of speculation - probably over a million and that we haven't got at present.

All of that said - what a concert, what a performance and what talented organists! Heaven came through the music last night, all too briefly.

Posted by The Gray Monk at October 7, 2007 05:36 AM

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