Edinburgh Festival 97: Marathon man

Eleven down, four to go: Peter Hurford is nearing the end of his 15-concert run through the organ works of JS Bach. Laurence Hughes went along to hear him

One of the - not exactly unsung, perhaps, but certainly less-sung - glories of this year's Edinburgh Festival is the remarkable series of 15 concerts being given by Peter Hurford at Greyfriars Kirk, containing virtually all the organ music that JS Bach ever wrote.

Hurford, a modest, understated character, is in fact one of the world's leading interpreters of this wonderful music, and has recorded the whole 20 hours or so of it all, twice - once in the 1970s for LP (recently re- released on 17 CDs by Decca), and more recently in a new digital edition (on EMI). This is, however, the first time he has attempted a live project such as this - playing 15 concerts of different music over three weeks. A mammoth enterprise, surely? Hurford agrees: "I did have some second thoughts, a few months ago. But then I realised, as a Bach player (and I'm 67, now), one does not go on for ever. It's very demanding in terms of reflexes and co-ordination. But if I can succeed in attracting a whole new audience to the concerts - if it results in more people wanting to hear Bach - then it's worth it. I don't think I'll do it all again so close together, though - it's too incredibly demanding."

But why should anyone attempt such a thing, anyway? Indeed, what makes someone devote their life, virtually, to one instrument and one composer? Perhaps the clue lies in something Wilfrid Mellers once wrote of the Leipzig Cantor in his fascinating study Bach and the Dance of God: "His appeal is almost primeval, for in his music one is seldom totally divorced from a motor rhythm [which] is regular, reiterated, non-developing, as unremittent as the turning earth, as continuous as the surging sea... Over this earth- beat independent polyphonies sing and wing, often transcending, even contradicting, the beat, so that the lines induce ecstasy, as does religious chant."

Long before the term "new age" was invented, people were attracted to these qualities in music, especially when realised with the structural and intellectual rigour of Bach. But these transcendent works have to be realised, by mere mortals, and interpreting them is not as straightforward an activity as it might at first seem. "What fascinates me," continues Hurford, "apart from the hallmark rhythmic figuration, is the harmonic inventiveness, that creates such spiritual shifts. The challenge is one of expressing this on an instrument which is arguably the most difficult to make music on - the organ. With other instruments, the notes are always limited in length - the problem is to make a smooth, legato line; with the organ, it's the exact opposite. Was it Brendel who said, `For me the essence of music is silence'? On the surface you don't have silence with the organ; if you wedged a key down and went away for the evening, the tone would still be sounding when you came back the next morning. This has to be turned round, so that you can have both legato and articulated notes, like with woodwind. You have to find it in a different way. I feel my instrument does get rather a bad press, sometimes; probably because players will use the most obvious features - loudness, playing lots of notes very fast - losing sight of what Bach found so attractive about the organ - using it as a beautiful way of creating musical line."

Given the immense variety of the uvre, ranging as it does over the whole of Bach's life, and containing everything from tiny Chorales to immense Preludes and Fugues, how did he approach planning the series? "My favourite listener is the man in the street," he says, "someone who is interested, knows of Bach and, while he's at the Festival, would like to come to an organ recital. It's the same as with the recordings - each one is a concert in itself."

Llike the great critic Ernest Newman, Hurford believes that "the Chorale Preludes are the key to the very heart of Bach".

"In planning this series, I started with the Chorale Preludes - the `Eighteen', the Orgelbuchlein, and so on - and spread them through; the next thing was to choose good starting and finishing pieces - not necessarily loud for the latter, but one should always end with a big piece. The one mistake I feel I've made, so far, was ending the second programme with the Canonic Variations on `Von Himmel Hoch' - not enough zip."

And putting yourself in the place of the listener is important. "You have to learn to put your ears at the back of the church and think `What are they hearing?' Essentially the intensity of sound can be enormous - you have to be careful. I remember at a recital in Australia once, the organist played the Prelude and Fugue in D minor right through on full organ; it's one of the few times I've really recoiled on behalf of my instrument - people gradually got up and walked out! I'm lucky - I've got my wife as my `ears at the back'."

Silence, as he's already mentioned, is a big issue with Hurford. "My Who's Who entry lists my hobbies as `walking, wine and silence'. One of the great attractions of Edinburgh is access to silence - the silence of the Pentland Hills, for example. Yesterday was my first rest day, and we went for a walk up there - it was so peaceful, we both fell asleep, and got severely sunburnt! And here at Greyfriars, with its kirkyard - you wouldn't know you were in the middle of a city." An ideal setting for playing, and listening to, this sublime music, on the magnificent Peter Collins organ of 1990.

What is it, then, about Bach's music, and his organ music in particular, that makes it so supremely great? "It's his simultaneous mastery of technique and ability to convey what is deepest in his spirit in the music that he writes; to communicate the deepest emotions to people who feel the same." Sitting in Greyfriars Kirk, listening to this timeless music, with the afternoon sun streaming through the stained glass windows behind the great organ case like Shelley's dome of glass staining the white light of eternity, one knows that this is a very special experience. Through the medium of Peter Hurford and the mind of Bach, we have a chance to partake of, in Spinoza's words, "The highest endeavour of the mind, and the highest virtue". Seize the opportunity while you can - it may not come again too soon.

Recitals daily at 5.45pm, Greyfriars Kirk (booking: 0131-473 2000) to Saturday

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas