Malcolm Archer, European Organ Music, Sherborne Abbey

ArcherMALCOLM Archer is one of the world’s leading church musicians and his recital on Bank Holiday Monday was bound to be one of the highlights of this year’s Sherborne Abbey Festival.

Although the Abbey looked spectacular, with the sun streaming through the stained glass, our eyes were rarely drawn far from the big screen. This gave us a bird’s eye view of Archer’s hands and an occasional glimpse of his profile as well, thereby adding significantly to our enjoyment.

The recital opened with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B minor (BWV 544). Not the showiest of pieces but one which was clearly going to set the tone for the entire concert. There was to be no nonsense and the music, in all its majesty, was going to be allowed to speak for itself.

The Bach was followed by a set of variations on “Meine junges Leben hat ein Endt” by a composer of a somewhat older generation – the Dutch organist Sweelinck. In this piece, the secular German tune was subjected to augmentation, diminution, changes of rhythm, occasional harmonic shifts and a great deal of textural variation. It was a work of endless invention and one which required considerable technique if the melody line was not to be lost. Being able to watch what was happening on the screen, it was fascinating to observe that Archer limited his performance to a single manual, using a creamy eight foot flute stop for the first variation, adding a four foot for the second, a two foot for the third, and then, finally, the mixture before reverting to a single stop for the last movement. Such clean simplicity – one does not have to be dazzled to be hugely impressed.

We were then whisked to the twentieth century for two pieces by English composers: Frank Bridge’s “Adagio in E” and Herbert Howells’ “Rhapsody No. 3”. Although not an organist himself and not personally associated with the music of the English church, Bridge’s “Adagio” is among the most performed of all his output. Archer’s legato playing of the music’s highly chromatic language together with his control of the tonal and dynamic capabilities of the organ, leading to a huge wavelike crescendo, was masterful. I particularly liked the ethereal string sound on the swell at the beginning and end and the poignant use of the clarinet on the choir. However, it was not until the Howells that we got the really big organ sound. With the tune frequently booming out on the pedals, this was a piece that relied almost as much on the acoustics of the building as anything else and the Abbey was not found wanting. Howells was a church musician through and through and clearly knew how to stir souls. How I wanted to shout “bravo” at the end. But no, this was Sherborne – we had to wait until the recital was over.

The final two works were by the French composers Franck and Vierne. Franck’s “Choral No. 3 in A minor” was the most extended and flamboyant piece we had heard so far. Once more Archer revealed to us some of the organ’s wonderful tonal capabilities as he explored the rich variety of textures present in Franck’s writing, the solo melody on the cornopean (a cross between a horn and an oboe) being strikingly effective. However, the recital’s showstopper has to have been the “Andante and Final” from Vierne’s “Symphonie No. 1”. Again, Archer had clearly given careful thought to the organ registration and the contrast he achieved between the two movements verged on the mind blowing. A virtuoso performance indeed.

A well thought out and structured programme – exciting and masterful. Wow.




Posted in Reviews on .