Classical music: Organised sound in London

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Organ recitals:

Gillian Weir / Colm Carey

Westminster Cathedral / St Andrew, Holborn, London

Two major series of organ recitals were launched in London this week, one with the inviting title, "Summer at Six - Young and Gifted", organised by the Royal College of Organists, the other called "The Celestial Banquet". Perhaps "Le Banquet Celeste" sounds better, as the name of a piece by Olivier Messiaen, whose complete organ music will be the focus of concerts and talks in Westminster Cathedral each Tuesday evening until 16 June.

Organists spend as much time discussing their instruments, as the music or how it's played. In a sense they are at the organ-builder's mercy, making the best, very often, of a bad job. Messiaen wanted to add more colours to his precious Cavaille-Coll at the Trinity Church in Paris, but was dissuaded, because it might have ruined a historic instrument. His music still glows on it with an effulgence no English organ can match, even the much admired instrument built by Henry Willis III in Westminster Cathedral, which xenophobic organ buffs in the Thirties criticised for being too French-flavoured. You could have fooled me. Playing Messiaen's most popular organ cycle, "La Nativite du Seigneur" last Tuesday, even the highly experienced Gillian Weir, known for her criticisms of organs others are only too grateful to play, did not manage to coax out of it the transparent brilliance and iridescent colours which Messiaen's music requires. (He even asks for one passage in "La Nativite" to have "charm".) Still, she did make it sound like music, not exercises in counting, and it wasn't her fault, in "Desseins Eternels", that a 32-ft pedal stop blurted uncouthly on some notes while nearly losing its voice altogether on others.

To expand on the religious theme of the nine pieces in "La Nativite", the talented young pianist Roderick Chadwick played four extracts from "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jesus". A Bosendorfer piano, placed at the opposite end of the nave to the organ, sounded like mumbling underwater, but Chadwick never let himself sink, and was clearly in perfect control. He could have used the acoustic, perhaps, to make more of Messiaen's extreme slow tempo, for instance in "Le Baiser de l'Enfant-Jesus", for there was a slight sense of being pressed for time.

The organ in St Andrew, Holborn, is much smaller than the Westminster monster - only two manuals and pedals, with 30 stops. Built by the English firm of Mander in 1990, it's still rather too loud up top even for Wren's largest London church, and on Thursday the young Irishman Colm Carey, who's organist of the Chapel Royal in the Tower of London, chose 19th- century music that didn't show the instrument to advantage - too much thick, foggy sound at fundamental 8-ft pitch. In the first four of Brahms's II Chorale Preludes, his registration was too heavy to make the textures clear. But then he also lingered so much that you lost your bearings on rhythm, and in "Es ist ein' Ros' entsprungen", though played on limpid flutes, Carey impeded the flow and sacrificed poignancy by stopping at the end of each line. Liszt called this sort of thing looking for house numbers, but in a transcription of Liszt's own tone- poem Orpheus, Carey shaped rather more constructively, even though the piece cried out for a big, romantic instrument dissolving in the vaults of a much larger building. He ended, in expansive mood, with the excessively rational first movement of Mendelssohn's third Sonata.

Organ recitals happen every day of the week in London churches, but it's still a scandal that the purpose-built instrument at the Royal Festival Hall has been shuttered up for several years, and that the "artistic" management there shows no interest in exploiting it.

`The Celestial Banquet', Tuesdays at 7.30pm, Westminster Cathedral (0171-798 9057); `Young and Gifted', Thursdays at 6pm, St Andrew, Holborn (tickets at the door, or call 0171-936 3606 to book in advance).

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