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Joyous festival for Peterborough organ

07 July 2017

Roderic Dunnett heard its repitching marked by a musical feast


THE story behind the repitching of Peterborough Cathedral’s Hill, Nor­man & Beard organ, celebrated in an imaginatively planned Summer Music Festival, is fascinating.

The complete updating by Harri­son & Harrison of the originally Victorian (Hill) organ involved the cutting off of a small section of every one of the pipes, I gather, and the adding of a new piece: just imagine the complexity of that detailed undertaking.

Peterborough cannot be alone in having had to tackle such a problem. In the era of its famous choir trainer Stanley Vann, the pitch would have been “Philharmonic Pitch”. What has now replaced it is “Standard Concert Pitch”. This, as the cathedral’s Director of Music, Steven Grahl, told us in an exemplary lec­ture, means that the organ can now play alongside an orchestra (or any instruments) at standard pitch.

Present “Concert Pitch” was agreed in 1939, and elaborated in 1960 to what we usually hear when an orchestra performs. It replaced the standard pitch internationally agreed in Paris in 1859 and Vienna in 1885. The A one sixth above middle C has 440 (double) vibra­tions per second. This replaced the previous 435 per second. Often you will heard musicians refer to “440”, a term now commonly in use.

So, good for Peterborough; but a bonus was the quality and intellig­ence of this weekend Festival’s programme. It was wonderfully balanced. Thus David Briggs — Britain has no better concert organist, though he now resides in Canada — gave the opening recital, including an arrangement (by a Debussy pupil) of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, which was just about the most stunning piece of organ colouring I have ever heard.

I wasn’t absolutely convinced at any time over the weekend that we were consistently getting the organ’s softer stops, of which it has a fabul­ous array, revealed to us at its mat­ure best; but when Briggs added not just Lemmens’s outrageous Fanfare and the Final from Vierne’s Symphony No. 1, you knew how spectacular all those Spitzfloten, 32 foot Contra Trombone (almost up to York Minster’s 64-foot), and Contra Posaunes, let alone the brand new Tuba Mirabilis, were.

Christopher Gower (Vann’s successor) set things in motion before he retired from Peter­borough, but in Grahl and his lively (and, in his recital, joyously lucid) assistant David Humphreys, this revised instrument is clearly in good hands.

Humphreys’s own recital included Cesar Franck’s Choral No. 2, and Briggs played the better known A-minor (No. 3), drawing attention (the programme notes were exemplary) to the Solo key­board’s Vox humana (or Voix humaine). I wish the festival had included all three, not least as I think that No. 1 is easily the most interesting. But this pairing was an example of the blissfully intelligent planning that characterised this Orgelfest throughout.

There was plenty of C. H. H. Parry: I was Glad and Blest Pair of Sirens — plus a Fantasia and Fugue — in one weekend, and almost exactly a century after the composer’s death; the benevolent old man would be chuffed. We laughed and jigged to Alfred Hollins (Maytime) and could relish a great deal of Reger (whose choral works are astounding: look at his Psalm 100) and Karg-Elert, and listen to three jaw-dropping choral settings of Gloria Tibi Trinitas (Tallis and Blitheman). In the Sunday-morning mass, the setting used was that of the Belgian Joseph Jongen, which is rarely heard in a liturgical context.

The high point was, of course, the central orchestral concert, designed to prove the point that the organ could now unite easily with an or­­chestra. The conductor was David Hill, and there are few as proficient as he at this sort of thing. The Bris­tol Ensemble were his charges here, and mighty good sounds he drew from them, conducting, as always, un­­showily.

Steven Grahl took to the loft to play Poulenc’s Organ Concerto; and what a publicity shot for the fresh­ened Peterborough organ that was! We got some Samuel Barber (Toccata Festiva), though the excel­lent notes by Humphreys seemed (perhaps) unaware of Barber’s Vio­lin Concerto, or Dover Beach, which are absolute classics. I Was Glad ended it all, but surely the absolute treat was Bairstow’s Blessed City, heavenly Salem, which needed a little more welly, but can never fail to be knockout.

I was bowled over by this whole event.

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