Vital organs

Colm Carey | St John's, Smith Square, London

"Wondrous machines!" was a beginner's guide to 700 years of organ music, though I doubt whether there were many beginners among the small audience at St John's on Tuesday evening. Devised, introduced and played by the young Dublin-born organist Colm Carey, it's the sort of programme that should tour regional festivals, where guaranteed audiences would find it entertaining as well as instructive. Perhaps it will.

"Wondrous machines!" was a beginner's guide to 700 years of organ music, though I doubt whether there were many beginners among the small audience at St John's on Tuesday evening. Devised, introduced and played by the young Dublin-born organist Colm Carey, it's the sort of programme that should tour regional festivals, where guaranteed audiences would find it entertaining as well as instructive. Perhaps it will.

The St John's organ, built by the Bonn-based firm of Klais seven years ago, is designed as a concert instrument on which music from all periods and countries can be played, but I never knew that it was capable of a passable imitation of a cinema organ, which it had to be in Karg-Elert's amiably vulgar Valse-Mignonne.

Carey's choice of music clearly wasn't meant to represent the cream of the repertoire, and he could have chosen more striking and beautiful pieces from the Spanish, Italian and French Baroque, rich areas that are not much explored in this country because there aren't many instruments that can do them justice. He might also have chosen a less hackneyed work by Bach, who may not even have written the corny old Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Still, it's an entertaining and powerful display-piece, and Carey did it proud.

His introductions, spoken from the organ console and relayed by a camera to the screen at the opposite end of the church, were a model of concision. Whether or not, as he claimed, organs made a sound louder than anything folk would have heard before the Industrial Revolution (what about cannons or bells?), the one at Winchester Cathedral in early medieval times was said to have been heard from miles away.

Carey spared us this torture, beginning with an early 14th-century "Estampie" in lean two-part counterpoint, played on a strong, simple eight-foot stop which was quite bearable. With "O rosa bella" from the 15th century, a definite sense of harmony emerged, and a more sedate expressiveness. Then, from the 16th, in "My Lady Carey's Dompe", came the modern concept of tune and accompaniment, all on flute stops. A short set of variations by Sweelinck developed a distinct sense of keyboard bravura.

A programmatic battle piece by Pedro da Araujo would, of course, have sounded more sensational on one of those stunning Spanish instruments with ranks of trumpets laid horizontally, but in two pieces by Clérambault, Carey achieved a very convincing imitation of the piquant sonorities of French Baroque organ music.

No sooner had the organ reached its zenith than it was consigned to a backwater, and the great Classical composers wrote nothing much for it. But in the 19th century it came to be a one-man substitute for the orchestra. The meretricious pomp of Mendelssohn's A major Organ Sonata, and the soppy "Andante sostenuto" from Widor's Symphonie Gothique, would have sounded more fun, of course, over the other side of Parliament Square, in Central Hall, Westminster. The Widor, certainly, needs to hover and dissolve in a vast space.

The final item, Tongues of Fire by Arthur Wills, one-time organist of Ely Cathedral, took its inspiration from Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles. It's typical of many flashy organ showpieces designed to stun, with jagged repeated chords, dizzy scales and dramatic pauses. It did the job.

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