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The Monument



Any historic or grand building can count as a monument. The difference with this review is that a bit of music will take place within or outside it.

Tourism really. No necessity on the reviewer to be incisive about the music; if needs be that can be about the monuments.

It starts at the Monument.

It hardly seems possible nowadays to go to an organ recital without the Prime Minister's car coming the other way.

So coming out of Monument Underground station and making my way up King William Street to pass St Mary Woolnoth to get to St Margaret Lothbury, two churches on different sides of the Bank of England that share a vicar, there it was.

It was a Thursday and a little after midday but, no, interest rates did not go up. So just tourism.

St Margaret Lothbury

St Margaret Lothbury is a Grade I listed Wren church with a fine acoustic for its small organ built by George Pike England c.1801 and restored in 1984. I was told that a false canvas ceiling was installed by Wren, which is now painted blue.

It has lots of fine carved wood, brought from other Wren churches, some believed to be by Grinling Gibbons, and I am sure this adds positively to the acoustic for organ by breaking up and diffusing sound waves, as does the irregular oblong shape.

I visited twice, once sitting where there was wooden flooring beneath and another time where there were memorial stones. With the wood you did not also hear through the floor but on trying to hear external sounds as well I wondered if one sound was the Underground railway. My imagining probably.

With the stones beneath you did definitely also hear the organ through vibrations through the seats and stones, which added pleasantly to the auditory hearing.

I can see, or rather hear, why of all the City churches this one has a regular organ recital series.

Another is the organist, Richard Townend.

I would much rather organists be educative about the music and the organ played than the reviewer having to write about them as despite having listened to organ music much of a lifetime I have much to learn.

He fits the bill very well, giving a short interval talk with each recital, including those of visiting organists, and providing informative programmes.

The view from the threshold of the church - the Bank of England

Methodist Central Hall on Parliament Square is definitely a late Victorian monument, fulsome on the outside, a little less elaborate within.

Westminster Abbey with Methodist Central Hall on the left

Though I had been accustomed to hearing a Hill organ from an early age and knew that Hill organs were often found in town hall type buildings I was still surprised, to see this one with its 32 foot rank of pipes, rebuilt and with over 3500 pipes, in an unusual hall.

The dome is said to be the second largest of its type in the world and parts of it appear to have fabric shielding. Some of the few oculi had blinds drawn, there were deep balconies and most of the floor was carpeted. This adds up to a lot of damping and an acoustic quite different from what you might find in a church, possibly unique if you listen for that kind of thing

I attended a recital by Gerard Brooks, current president of the Royal College of Organists, on 16 January 2022.

He also fits the mould of educating his audience, explaining the pieces he played, which are all found on his very recent CD and played on the same organ.

If you compare his playing of Louis Vierne's Carillon de Westminster on that CD, which we heard live, with his recording of the same at St Ouen, Rouen you can hear the difference of acoustic.

It was good to hear the deep bass of the 32 foot pipes though there is limited reverberation and no resonance through the floor.

I particularly liked the Jeremiah Clarke Trumpet Voluntary played on Hill pipes.

The Church of Our Lady and English Martyrs in Cambridge is a monument.

It is often mistaken for part of the University as it the first monument you pass coming into the city from the station and it features prominently in the long vista in the other direction.

It is neo-Gothic and shows how far the Victorians got in recreating Gothic using off the shelf church architecture components that they manufactured. It has friendly volumes but it does not sound Gothic.

On the first day that coronavirus restrictions were effectively removed in England, 27 January 2022, I attended a concert by The Orlando Singers and a trio there.

The church, near an intersection, has an acoustic subject to extraneous sounds but I suspect that some part of the concert will still emerge as a recording or video.

You are best served by a soundpath direct and close and the string instruments of the trio were impressive as the players were set further forward.

All the music was of high quality and particularly charming in the choral work was O Vos Omnes, one of two premieres by John S Wilson, one of the members of The Orlando Singers, which we were treated to.

extract from programme

Next up was the real thing, in terms of Gothic and the monumental.

I attended vespers at Antwerp Cathedral.

At 404 feet high it was for centuries the tallest building in the low countries. It has been a long time favourite of mine.

That it dominated the landscape and imagination is celebrated in the fictional story of Nello and Patrasche, which has got a new sculpture outside the cathedral.

I have not been too lucky with my revisting of Gothic cathedrals. My visit to Notre-Dame found it enveloped in scaffolding for obvious reasons and at Antwerp, more simply, for renovations.

At least I got a good view whilst dining nearby.

Inside, I come for the Rubens but the architecture, like Antwerp's diamonds, is not exactly a miss.

Without scaffolding, the tower is a unique wonder of the world.

This time, I came determined to hear at least one of the organs.

The Metzler organ and The Descent from the Cross triptych

The cathedral has two organs, the recently restored Schyven organ and the 1993 Metzler organ.

The Schyven organ

The Metzler organ

Vespers was a single voice, rather than a full choir as at Westminster Cathedral, accompanied by the organ and this, unsurprisingly, did not stretch the Metzler.

However, the very short organ voluntary at the end started to do so and left me very impressed by both the organ and the acoustic from where I was sitting.

The centre panel of The Ascent of the Cross triptych

So the next place to go to was to the chapel at Trinity College, Cambridge, whose acoustic I have reviewed before, to listen to the Metzler organ again.

excerpt from TCMS programme

The accepted wisdom now, which is probably right, is that this is the organ to play baroque music on in Cambridge. However, from Colin Millington's recital, who also plays the saxophone and clarinet, I much enjoyed the Lennox Berkeley best and, at the end of the day, both these Metzlers are 20th century organs.

Playing this one, which is much the same size, would be great training for playing the Antwerp one so, Belgium, send us your budding organists, though the acoustic of the two places is much different.

Grade I listed Great Court from the door of the Chapel [1]

Next was to catch up on Queens' College where Queens' Graduate Choir and friends were giving a concert in an almost packed Chapel - very good to see as it is also out of term. This, too, was two years in the making because of the virus.

Queens' College and its Mathematical Bridge

A good space for music and lots of talent. It also had what was announced as the only live performance of William Hayes' Orpheus and Euridice in modern times. You cannot do better sometimes, than the type of music you get in College music societies.

Having been to Antwerp Cathedral I made a visit to sit under the dome of St Paul's Cathedral for a service called Passiontide Organ Meditation - Stations of the Cross with organ music by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Here I was not unlucky at all with my cathedrals - that this magnificient monument was built in the seventeeth century so logically, well and quickly is a mark of the greatness of the nation, city and architect, something not yet paralleled this millennium, but it is not Gothic and there is no scaffolding.

The service was salutary in this, until recently unforseen, time of the return of war to Europe, which we must hope will end soon, but I can also see why Margaret Thatcher chose this cathedral for her post-Falklands conflict service. Buildings remind us more immediately of our history than history books, though they used to be full of Sir Christopher Wren.

In fairness, this was not an organ recital but a chorale and variations from BWV 768 and a passage from BWV 622 to conclude, interspersed into the service, all played by William Fox. The organ was not stretched except by the last variation, XI, but I can always return for an organ recital.

The organ, shrouded in incense

More intriguing from a musical point of view, I also attended, earlier the same day, an organ recital by Sebastian Heindl, visiting from Leipzig, in St James's Church, Sussex Gardens, which is near Hyde Park.

It is a Grade II listed Gothic Revival Church by G.E. Street, the architect of the Royal Courts of Justice, and it reminds of there in its creation of interior space in the Gothic style.

Having worked next door, familiar territory - entrance to the Royal Courts of Justice

It it the first G.E. Street church I have knowingly been in and so I was intrigued architecturally. Had a Leipzig organist been playing Bach I would have quickly got the measure of the organ, the acoustic and the organist but playing relatively unfamiliar pieces I am sufficiently intrigued to want to hear all three again.

From the choir

Suffice to say that Sebastian Heindl is a good organist with a fluid, energetic style unlike the British ones.

He, too, explained what he was going to play.

First up was Camille Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre, Op. 40 but to his own arrangement.

This was followed by César Franck's Grande Pièce Symphonique, Op.17, which played by him was a strikingly beautiful composition.

I remember as a student going up into the dome of St Paul's, onto its whispering gallery and down into the crypt whilst restoration was under way. When Sir Christopher Wren built it no dome of this scale had ever been attempted in the contemporary classical idiom. There were no structural engineers then but every architect has an eye for what will stand which is why so few buildings come down of their own accord and why, perhaps, you should not be substituting a surveyor or builder for an architect if you are after anything large or addressing aesthetics.

The structure proved to be massively overstructured with lots of redundant strength. We were told that the columns supporting the dome had been filled with a kind of concrete rubble that with the passage of time had settled removing its contribution to structural strength. Perhaps for centuries the encasing stonework of the columns had supported the dome but even they were significantly over-structured. Modern concrete materials were being inserted.

The acoustic of the space proved to be difficult for me to get a handle on during the organ recital. If you get close to quiet under the dome, sound travels with clarity but once it starts bouncing around from something quite different to an organ, like a public address speaker not set up, it sounds dreadful - more echo than clarity.

Line of sight to the organ console

The spaces beyond the dome must be complex for sound reflections but I could hardly wander round finding out.

Nor should this necessarily bother an organist who knows what he is doing.

As it happens this was the first of the Organ 150 celebrity organ series, the first series at St Paul's since 2019, and the organist was Johann Vexo, the choir organist of Notre-Dame who was playing when the fire started on the roof.

If you are forever playing for the choir you know how to get the sound right for the space.

So after the first piece I gave up trying to understand the acoustic from where I was sitting and settled into enjoying the music and the tune of the organ.

This was a true concert recital rather than a recital, all French pieces that hung together well as a concert, the Widor stretching the organ so getting me to understand that the way to overcome the great mix of architectural shapes and recesses reflecting sounds was to get everything reflecting and sounding at once.

You heard every which way, including reverberations through the floor and seats but in their case through a structurally very solid foundation not Gothic trembling, more Porsche chassis than MGB.

The Grande Pièce Symphonique was written by César Franck soon after he became organist at Sainte-Clotilde with its new Cavaillé-Coll organ. Having twice hear it in London within weeks I now need to hear it in Saint-Clotilde and Notre-Dame.

Louis Vierne's Symphony No.6 was written, the programme notes say, during a summer holiday in Menton.