Arts: Classical: A rich organic diet

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The Independent Culture
WHEN I was a child, one of my favourite 78s was The Storm, on which Arthur Meale conjured up terrors of natural phenomena on the mighty organ of Central Hall Westminster, and from its most secret cavities a distant, tremulous chorus of pipes bleated "Eternal Father, strong to save".

The Spring recital series ("The Best of British") of the Royal College of Organists hasn't quite embraced such populism, but at least its artistic director Thomas Trotter has prescribed a diet based unashamedly on Victorian and Edwardian composers.

Who better to open it on Thursday than John Scott, organist of St Paul's Cathedral and one of our most brilliant players. As a baby he must have had an organ instead of a dummy, for he makes music as easily as he breathes.

Mendelssohn counts as an honorary Victorian and shook up the English organ world like nobody's business. Arranged by WT Best, the most brilliant English organist of the mid-19th century, the overture to his oratorio St Paul sang forth warm and solid, not at all belittled on an instrument a good deal smaller than Best probably had in mind.

Henry Smart and Sir Frederick Gore Ouseley were other mid-Victorian organist- composers, no doubt overrated in their day as far as their music went, though Smart was only represented by a modestly benign prelude. John Scott made Ouseley's flowing Prelude in G minor beautifully beguiling, even if in the following Fugue, Ouseley failed to do much with his terse subject.

Samuel Sebastian Wesley's Larghetto in F sharp minor started with a winsome Mendelssohnian tune on a solo reed stop, which was then varied with decorative counterpoint on a fluttering flute - quite irresistible. But it was Sir Hubert Parry's Fantasia and Fugue in G which squared up to, and even out- did, Mendelssohn in his Bach revival mode. The Fantasia, with its flamboyant scales and massive chords, was particularly impressive.

Then came the short sharp shock of Peter Maxwell Davies's "Voluntary on Psalm 124", with the psalm chant growing in the pedals while a spiky atonal counterpoint disagreed with it high on a flute. The music equivalent of Graham Sutherland's little studies of tangled thorns, maybe, and since it wasn't too long, quite intriguing.

Finally, two deliciously fluent pieces, "Divertimento" and "Sortie", by Percy Whitlock, who was organist at the Pavillion in Bournmouth until he died in 1946. Whitlock certainly tickled the ear, yet with fastidious taste, and he sent us home with a warm feeling.

Adrian Jack

`The Best of British' continues at St Andrew, Holborn, tomorrow, then 24 March, 8, 15 and 22 April at 6pm