The King of Instruments: A recital for the present age

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The limits of patriarchal language notwithstanding, the pipe organ really is the King of Instruments. In physical size, in sound variety and capacity, in visual impact, in impressive console arrays, the English Cathedral organ (with variants all around the world) is impressive and majestic.

My two earliest childhood memories were the sound of the organ at a local church in Victoria BC, and recordings by E Power Biggs my father brought home from the library. My first LP purchase was Simon Preston playing the four manual organ at Westminster Abbey, a recording featuring Walton’s Crown Imperial, various trumpet tunes and finishing with the first movement of the Elgar Sonata in G.

These early influences led me to study organ for roughly a decade in my late teens and early twenties. Life and vocation eventually took me in a different direction, but the thrill of hearing good music on great organs at the hands and feet of talented performers still thrills me.

So I looked forward to the initial recital (Oct 1, 2021) on the restored organ at Canterbury Cathedral with much interest. The performer was Nathan Laube. I have heard him in other settings and so agree with the Director of Music who described him as one of the great musicians of our century. From the online programme notes we learn:

Known for his brilliant playing, gracious demeanor, and creative programming of repertoire spanning five centuries (including his own virtuoso transcriptions of orchestral works), Nathan is beloved around the world and has earned high praise from critics and peers alike.

Nathan has performed in the most famous churches and cathedrals of Europe, including Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, York Minster, the Frauenkirche in Dresden, and the Berlin Dom, and is repeatedly called upon to inaugurate important organs, including the restored Harrison & Harrison organ of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

Known for his brilliant playing, gracious demeanor, and creative programming of repertoire spanning five centuries (including his own virtuoso transcriptions of orchestral works), Nathan is beloved around the world and has earned high praise from critics and peers alike.

In Laube the listener finds a combination of technical brilliance, seemingly effortless execution (playing mostly from memory), mastery in managing the instrument, a studied musician well versed in romantic and earlier performance practice, a brilliant arranger, all coupled with a delightful demeaner and ability to convey his enthusiasm for the music in a manner even a novice listener can appreciate.

The recital was not a historical survey of the literature. Neither was it a spectacle for bravado’s sake. It was a virtuosic display of what this amazing instrument can do. Rebuilt by the English Firm of Harrison and Harrison of Durham, in a project which gathered the best of existing pipework from various locations throughout the building, the project has produced a fine improvement and re-arrangement of existing resources well suited for sung cathedral liturgy in both the choir and the nave.

The programme itself was most interesting. Laube opened with the fiery Allegro from the Widor Sixth Organ Symphony. We hear the full organ in all its rafter rattling glory. We see hands and feet in a dazzling combination of chords and cadenza-like figures.

We turn next to the increasingly popular music of Percy Whitlock and his Fantasie Choral No.1 in D-flat. This repertoire has been recorded in full by Graham Barber and Darius Battiwalla. New to me, the Fastasie demonstrated that if this musical tiger can roar, it can likewise purr.

It was Laube’s transcription of Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor which captured my attention. I remember hearing a spellbinding Festival Hall performance by the late Argentinian Pianist Claudio Arrau in 1979. In Laube’s transcription I enjoyed the work in an entirely new way, always asking myself would this translation work on the organ? It certainly did, especially in the middle slower moments where lyric motifs through imitative dialogue transported me to another world, albeit  briefly.

In conclusion we were treated to Laube’s arrangement of Edwin Lamare’s transcription of Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser. Such transcriptions were popular early in the 20th century, in the town halls of England and the USA. It was cheaper to hire a virtuosic organist than a symphony. In days prior to television, even the wireless (radio) such music at the hands of Edwin Lamare and others produced marvellous entertainment. Such programs featured instruments in town halls in Hull, Leeds, Bristol, Manchester, even London’s Royal Albert Hall and the ill-fated Alexandra Palace. It was a golden age for concert organ performance, a style of performance akin to that of the late Carlo Curly and more recently Cameron Carpenter. The style is perfectly re-created by Nathan Laube in this magnificent concert, one for the ages I might suggest.

On a somewhat personal note, watching this glorious music being shared in such a brilliant and delightful way, I found myself reflecting on what human beings can do, given the right training, support, circumstances, resources and what must surely be God-given talent and initiative. Such giftedness is akin to that of a cardiac surgeon, a civil engineer and even a politician. In musicians, be they the cellist Yo Yo Ma or the pianist Marta Argerich, certain performers still stand out as exemplars for the age. Interestingly, a brief internet search seems to locate the qualities of genius now less in the classical realm than in the popular music field. That said, if genius is still present in our classically oriented realm, those who seek exemplars need look no further than Nathan Laube.

Harrison and Harrison

Thanks you to all who supported the restoration project. Thank you to all Cathedral music staff. Thank you to Harrison and Harrison who keep the organ building and restoration craft alive (you likely could earn better money at Amazon!). Thank you to all talented performers (and Thomas Trotter we do look forward to hearing you perform Durufle on this instrument) who keep the art of live music accessible and well.

Just, thank you everyone, for this wonderful music making.

Soli Deo gloria.

One thought on “The King of Instruments: A recital for the present age

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  1. I attended the 2017 Montreal RCCO Festival and heard Nathan Laube perform at St. Joseph’s Oratory. His Bach Fantasia and Fugue, and pieces by Verne, and Alain left us speechless. His final – Suite pour Orgue by Durufle was the most moving and inspiring performance I ever heard. We heard many great performers – including Canadian Rachel Laurin and Oliver Latry from Notre-Dame in Paris. Nathan is a performer that one never forgets!
    Gail Ovington

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