Organ recitals often begin with pieces from J. S. Bach, and this indeed followed that familiar format. But there were two main things which set it apart.
The first was John Kitchen’s commentary as we proceeded through the programme. Kitchen has been so central to Edinburgh’s musical life over so many years, and is Edinburgh City Organist, with performing and curatorial duties at the Usher Hall. Yet he has such a warm, friendly and humorous way – he really excited the audience’s interest, and the fascinating detail he gave us made us appreciate the music the more.
The second great feature of this afternoon’s performance was the immense amount of thought and care that had clearly gone into the pieces chosen. Subtitled “Music for Easter and Ascension”, we began with three of Bach’s organ chorales for Easter/Ascension. Developed from plainsong, Bach had worked these out of pre-existing material, with the Lutheran influence evident.
The basis for Pachelbel’s ‘Chorale Variations’ was immediately recognisable to many – the tune in in the UK being used for a famous Easter hymn. We learned that in Germany, it is the setting for an Ascension hymn. This was therefore a great choice for the programme, in straddling its liturgical themes. Kitchen proceeded through the work with some subtle, beautiful and inspired registrations. I think we all enjoyed hearing the Zimbelstern at the end – while maybe seeming a little eccentric to have this added to a Fr Willis organ, we were glad that Kitchen had arranged this!
The concluding three movements from Messiaen’s L’Ascension began with a slow mediation based on the glorification passages from St John. It was ponderous and reflective, reflecting something of the unease and disquiet its underlying prayer embodied. By way of contrast, we had pretty much full organ all the way through for ‘Transports de joie’, with some wonderful scrunchy harmonies. We finished with one of Messiaen’s trademark slow movements – trying to conjure up a vision of eternity, and reminiscent of the Quartet for the End of Time, which we had the privilege of hearing at a previous year’s Festival.
The performance finished at 2.00pm.
Rising to the Life Immortal, Tuesday 15th August, 1.10pm, Old St Paul’s Church