HERBERT BUTTERFIELD’s church on the edge of Blackheath enjoys one of London’s most beautiful and historical locations, where Wat Tyler’s forces camped during the Peasants’ Revolt.
It was at All Saints’ that, at 15 and 16, I practised the organ, before taking lessons with the local bank manager, Mr Fussell, on the other side of Blackheath village, at the then Congregational Church.
The clerics at the relatively high-church All Saints’ were always impressive and kindly; and the present Vicar, no less so, is the Revd Dr Nicholas Cranfield, the Church Times art critic. He has seen to the welfare of All Saints’ for nigh on 18 years.
The first All Saints’ Music Festival (it is intended that the event will become annual) at the end of October was, for the church, an important one. All Saints’ was supplied from the outset, in 1857, with a two-manual organ by William Hill & Son (later Hill, Norman & Beard), several times tweaked (in 1869, 1893, and, of all years, 1915, when a third manual and pneumatic action came into play). Walker’s then had a go at it in 1958; and, lastly, there was a rebuild in 1969 by Percy Daniel, a Clevedon firm, to whose intensive alterations there were mixed reactions.
Now, in 2014-15, Harrison & Harrison, the long-established Durham firm, have been let loose to marvellous effect; in particular, Harrisons’ has sought to preserve or revive many aspects of the uniform Hill original.
This sensitive approach by the refashioners was evident throughout the well-marshalled celebratory weekend festival: an opening recital in which some intriguing electronics (by the two performers, Huw Morgan, the church’s director of music, and Michael Bonaventure, suggesting haunted landscapes . . . and impermanence) rubbed up against Buxtehude, and, from the French 19th-century musical renaissance, Boëllmann, Vierne, and the heroic Jehan Alain (1911-40), who was killed in a bloody skirmish near Saumur in the Second World War. He was the 15-years-older brother of the doyenne of modern organ teachers, Marie-Claire Alain.
Hearing the new, or good-as-new, organ set against an impressive chorus, the beautifully expressive L’Inviti Singers, or in the Sunday-afternoon liturgy, brought equal pleasure. For the latter, we were treated to a spirited new setting of the Evening Canticles by Jonathan Rathbone, whose hefty new cantata on the life of St Patrick, Patricius, had been performed at his home church, St Mary’s, Walthamstow, only the week before.
Schooled originally as a chorister at Coventry, and, after Christ’s College, Cambridge, musical director of the Swingle Singers, Rathbone has an interesting, mixed musical pedigree, which could run the risk of yielding somewhat hybrid works in a hybrid repertoire.
Rathbone is too good a musician for that. His output is fast growing, and, while he excels at the miniature — the Christmas carol not least (see www.jonathanrathbone.co.uk) — his ability to address larger-scale subjects in weightier scores (now published by Peters Edition) is more and more apparent.
There is flamboyance, urgency, deftness, and sometimes even a hint of comedy, certainly pastiche, in his writing: he is patently as in control in the composition of his scores as in their execution.
In the All Saints’ Service in F, the canonic — almost small-scale fugal — writing of both Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, boded well, as did some striking (and intelligent) use of flourishes for the Harrison organ, with some challenging octaves for the player, not unlike the world of Vierne and Gigout.
The cantata, performed under the composer’s baton and adroitly managed by his choral society at St Mary’s, the Rowantree Choir, has a nice dramatic feel, abetted by a libretto by Paul Whitnall. I found a bit of the text verged on the insipid, as can easily happen. But much was meaty, and on a par with Rathbone’s highly agreeable music.
It was David Guest, son of a great father (George Guest, the late organist of St John’s College, Cambridge), who took the podium for the centrepiece at All Saints’, the Saturday-evening gala concert.
Guest junior was a choral scholar under his father, and is master of many of the intelligent aspects of choral leadership, and even the quality of timbre, learned from his father’s espousal of the ritual of daily evensong, and from the endlessly instructive book A Guest at Cambridge (Paraclete Press, 1994).
To my surprise, the only disappointment in a rich recital was Robert Parsons’s wonderful 16th- century Ave Maria, which made scant impact on me, and may have been taken a little fast: Parsons, like White, is a spacious Tudor composer.
All else was joy: a wonderful, apt restraint in Byrd’s Justorum animae; appropriate zip in Gibbons’s irresistible “O clap your hands”; an equal sensitivity in the well-chosen encore, Tallis’s O nata lux, which Bernard Rose (whose centenary falls in May 2016) used to perform magically as an introit in the antechapel of Magdalen College, Oxford.
To bring Thomas Weelkes’s “Hosanna to the Son of David” as much to life as Tomkins’s version was no mean achievement by these L’Inviti Singers. Parry (“I was Glad”) rejoiced, and Rutter (“This is the Day”) sparkled and romped. There was a minor miracle in a rather daring choral setting, “Sing we praise to God”, by the late Sir David Willcocks (from 1999, for the Royal Albert Hall) of the Toccata from Widor’s Fifth Symphony.
All the fabulous playing on the All Saints’ organ came from Williams; and, if Bach’s D-minor Toccata was obvious fare, it showed off the wonderful fullness of the organ, and the glorious uniformity of those “families” of stops, to great effect.
A new Prelude on a Bach chorale, commissioned from Surrey University’s Professor Emeritus Sebastian Forbes, with the melody in the pedals, perhaps came across a little leadenly: Bach without the joy. But “Transports de joie”, from Messiaen’s L’Ascension, paraded the instrument’s impressive, catchingly varied colours, and its more piquant stops wondrously.
Williams, in succession to Andrew Gant (2000-12), is currently Director of Music at Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace (who parade annually at the Cenotaph for the Remembrance Day Service), and teaches organ at Eton. His playing was surpassing: beyond all reproach. I wish I had evinced a tenth as much skill during those 1960s visits to All Saints’; but even in those days the instrument was a revelation to play.