CLASSICAL Wayne Marshall Royal Naval College
Wednesday 16 July 1997
Like most organs 200 years old, this one has had a complex history of alterations. But 20 of Samuel Green's original 24 stops survive, plus others from later rebuilds, and there are also three new stops. There's new mechanical action on all three manuals and pedals, which might have made a player's work heavy. If so, Marshall showed no sign of it. He's a powerfully athletic player, and gesturally flamboyant. Whenever he played something peremptory or dramatic, he would round it off with a flourish of the arms. From the back he looked as physical and brawny as a boxer, and there was a distinctly macho attack to his playing - Bach's "St Anne" Prelude took on an almost military brusqueness.
By contrast, Samuel Green was noted for the gentle tone of his instruments, which were usually smaller than the Naval College organ. It remains quite delicate-sounding, but strong enough for the clear, immediate acoustic of the Chapel. There's none of that lingering resonance when the sound dies.
Samuel Sebastian Wesley's Andante in G showed off a trumpet stop on the Swell manual, though on many organs a similar sound might be labelled as an oboe - such are the strange orchestral conceits of organ builders. Then Liszt's Prelude and Fugue on BACH showed how sonorous the organ could sound, and it growled and thundered quite threateningly enough, though Marshall's liking for speed reduced the full effect of Liszt's rhetorical shock tactics.
Liszt wrote the piece for a relatively classical organ - extravagantly orchestral instruments didn't exist at the time. So it was more amazing that Marshall made three pieces from Messiaen's Les Corps Glorieux sound so effective, for they were certainly written for the lusciously varied palette of a Romantic French instrument. In the first, "Force et agilite", fiery reeds burnt the ears in an exotic monody, half-Indian, half bird- like. The second, "Joie et clarte", showed off quieter stops and harmonic mixtures. And the third, "Le Mystere de la Sainte Trinite", suspended time in a trio of strangely self-willed contrapuntal lines, all on contrasted soft stops.
Messiaen's pupil and successor, Naji Hakim, was represented by a spicy, jazzy piece based on the plainchant hymn "Vexilla Regis prodeunt", which ended with squealing mixtures, an ugly sound when pushed high into the treble register, though you can hardly put the blame on this particular instrument. We had come a long way from JS Bach and, to end, Marshall's own improvisation made it easy to forget that the core of the organ we were listening to dated from 1789. He based it on "What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor", which was almost immediately loosened, aptly enough, from its tonal moorings, with rapid little glissandi added for colourful decorative effect. Soon he worked in "O God Our Help in Ages Past" and, less piously, the "Ride of the Valkyries" - a cheeky touch which referred to its history as a vehicle for virtuoso organist-entertainers of yesteryear. Inevitably, these three unlikely companions were reconciled, but not until Marshall had raised a good few laughs with their outrageous adventures. Adrian Jack
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