The Organ

Worcester Cathedral Quire Organ Opening, 8th August, 2008

Worcester Cathedral
8th August

Opening recital of the new Kenneth Tickell Quire Organ in Worcester Cathedral by Dame Gillian Weir, 8 August 2008

Max Reger: Introduction and Passacaglia in D minor

JS Bach: 3 'Schübler' Choral Preludes

Frank Bridge: Adagio in E major

Percy Whitlock: Folk Tune

CHH Parry: Choral Prelude on Croft's 136th

Olivier Messiaen: L'Ascension; four symphonic meditations

GF Handel: Voluntary on a Flight of Angels

Olivier Messiaen: Les Anges

Jacques Charpentier: L'Ange a la Trompette

Henri Mulet: Rosace and Tu es Petrus

Guy Bovet: Hamburger Totentanz

It was with lively anticipation that over a thousand people queued around the Cathedral before being allowed in to hear the inaugural recital on the new Quire Organ by Kenneth Tickell and Co. Ltd. played by Dame Gillian Weir. I say Quire Organ rather than Cathedral Organ as this is the first of three Organs which will eventually complete the Organ project in Worcester Cathedral. The old organ was a most unsuitable 'hotch-potch' of inferior quality, housed in ugly Victorian cases at floor level in the quire, too loud for accompanying the Cathedral Choir with any success, and not nearly loud enough to have any impact beyond the crossing. Very briefly, the new organ has been designed primarily for the accompanying of the Cathedral Choirs in their Opus Dei, which it does with great panache. Those of us who, having heard it in its 'daily job' accompanying the three Cathedral Choirs of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester during the Festival, will testify that all expectations have been surpassed! There will be a full review in the near future in The Organ detailing the difficulties of the old Cathedral Organ together with an article describing in detail the new Quire Organ plus interviews with both Adrian Lucas, the Cathedral's Organist and Master of the Choristers and Kenneth Tickell.

At the outset of the recital we were informed that the Bach had been dropped from the programme. This announcement was met with disappointment, as I think we were all looking forward to this. It was a shame that Bach wasn't represented as Kenneth's organs all have 'classical' choruses that lend themselves to this music perfectly. The programme itself was perhaps not quite as strong as it might have been for such an opening and I was left feeling that I hadn't heard as much of the organ as I would have wished. That said, Dame Gillian gave us a wonderful show, all captured on the Three Choirs Festival's CCTV, with screens all around the Cathedral. The Reger began on a stately tutti (minus 32' reed and Tuba). The sound is reed dominated without being too muddy, the classical choruses shining through with ease. The playing was steady, comfortable and stylish. The Passacaglia began on soft Pedal with Swell strings; these are keen without too much 'edge' - just right, although maybe the 'beat' of them is a little quick for my taste. There was a seamless build-up through the lovely 'liquid' flutes to Diapason choruses underpinned by the 'perky' Swell Fagotto, which is usefully available on the Pedal. As the piece concluded one felt the loss (temporary until the Transept Organ is completed) of the massive Hill Pedal section. The Quire Organ only has three 16' flues and lacks the 'punch' that the heavyweights around the corner will eventually bring.

During the Bridge and Whitlock we were treated to the lovely solo colours this organ enjoys – beautiful flutes, open, harmonic and stopped, and the characterful Solo Hautbois. The Choir strings were also demonstrated - these are much keener than those of the Swell. How lovely that we have started returning to the Romantic style of English Organ building but without losing all we have learnt in the process during the last 50 years or so.The Parry is a little heard piece but deserves to be given a wider audience. A cross between Reger and Bach, complete with interrupted cadences and a pedal solo, it is a gem. It wasn't easy to spot the tune, (well to me at least) but we were treated to a display of the wonderful choruses, topped by the 'sparkly' Choir mixture.

The main event of this programme was Messiaen's L'Ascension. Dame Gillian is well known for her recordings and interpretations of Messiaen's organ music as well as her friendship with him. She showed this intimacy throughout the playing of this work and the organ showed us yet again that it isn't a 'one-trick pony'. It has many convincing 'French' voices, in particular the Great Organ's Cornet Separé, which is ravishing! The Choir Organ also has a little 'snappy' Trumpet with French shallots.The only disappointment in this music was the Solo Clarinet. A beautiful stop, it is too smooth for the French repertoire and would certainly fail in classical French music. However, as this stop will mainly be used in Psalms and Canticles it is perfect! The Transports de joie was very exciting and the Pedal 32' reed came through the texture without dominating. The sound is definitely English though, reminiscent of late Father Willis - indeed I thought I heard the ghost of Lincoln Cathedral's Willis during this movement. Dame Gillian's fingers on view to us all flashed across the keys with great dexterity: hugely impressive!

The Handel was delightfully played on 4' and 2' stops only, the Messiaen (from La Nativité) being a little more restrained. The Charpentier, I'm afraid to say, was for me the 'weak link' in the programme. It just didn't seem to hold together musically. The playing of it was, of course, fantastic, but it was a poor pastiche of Messiaen, Langlais and Murrill! I won't be rushing to Blackwells for a copy! The fabulous dynamic range of the Swell boxes and more singing flutes were used for the Rosace from Mulet's Esquisses Byzantines. These boxes are behind the stonework of the triforium and shut down to almost nothing. The second piece from this set, the Tu es Petrus, was thrilling, although the lack of 32' flue tone was sorely missed. This is a dark brooding toccata in the rich key of F sharp minor and when it is underpinned with weighty 32s it is such a thrill. However, we were treated to a tour de force of the available resources and it was nevertheless very exciting, the potent Pedal Trombone showing its 'Englishness': a powerful stop but not possessing the 'bite' one prefers in French music. This excellent recital concluded with the Bolero-like Totentanz (Dance of Death) by Guy Bovet. As its name suggests, this piece has a 'menacing' presence, almost uncomfortable, with leanings towards the more famous piece by Saint-Saëns. There are amusing references to Offenbach, Beethoven and Wagner to be heard and the whole piece ends in a rousing tutti, the new organ coping very well with the way it was 'thrown around'!

After the recital, Christopher Allsop gave a very entertaining and amusing talk with slides, in the Chapter House, on the dismantling of the old organ and building of the new. There was also a talk by Dame Gillian Weir on her experiences at the various consoles she has played. The Cathedral's Music and Light Appeal was also talked about, which will include fund raising for the next two new organs as well as for the Cathedral Choirs (for further details about the appeal contact Lucinda Wray-Wear at Worcester Cathedral on 01905 732900). There will be more about this appeal in the article/interview on the organ. The organ is to have a 'proper' opening in the first weekend of October, where the new instrument will be able to demonstrate its job accompanying the Cathedral Choir. On the Saturday evening there is a recital by Thomas Trotter who will demonstrate fully all the stops in his own uniquely entertaining way. On Sunday morning there will be the world première of a Mass for Choir and Double Organ composed by Adrian Lucas. This is a weekend to get in your diaries now.

James Atherton