April 2010

ESOA Meeting 3 April 2010 – Streatham and Dulwich

A select group of ten members came to the meeting on Holy Saturday to hear and see two organs from quite different vintages within a small radius of south London.

Streatham St Peter
Our first venue was at St Peter’s Church, Streatham, where we met the Director of Music, Philip Collin who introduced us to “The Hill on the Hill”, as the organ by William Hill is described in the brochure we were given. The church maintains a high pattern of churchmanship in which music reflects a commensurate status and combines it with a competent standard of choral embellishment. During the 1980’s the church was liturgically reordered with the altar now being re-sited at the west end of the church. The organ and choir remains in the former chancel area with musical support from organ and choir coming from behind the congregation.

Although some minor work and repairs were undertaken after the Second World War and during the 1970’s, the organ remains tonally unaltered since 1913. However, the
Streatham St Peter
tubular-pneumatic stop and combination action is becoming more unreliable and along with the blowing plant needs to be replaced in order to bring back all stops into playing condition and to provide for the full range of playing aids which is essential for a large instrument.

Philip mentioned that he had learnt to develop a technique to cope with these deficiencies, and ably demonstrated the organ by playing the Prelude from the Durufle Suite. When members came to play it was a case of finding which stops were not operational and having an effective registrand to come to the rescue! There was a good egress of sound, although the effect of full organ – or as near as it is currently possible to achieve this – never seemed overpowering. Funding is on track to complete the outstanding work to restore the organ to proper playing order, and it is hoped that we may be able to re-visit the church at a later stage when this has been completed.

Christ's Chapel Dulwich
A few miles to the east at Christ’s Chapel, Dulwich, the organist Marilyn Harper was ready and waiting to provide us with a warm and enthusiastic welcome. Being a small group we were able to convene on the main gallery beside the organ where Marilyn provided a potted history of how the organ had evolved over the decades. Substantial soundboard damage by an over-active heating system hastened a thorough review of the instrument in 2000 when it was decided to restore the organ to mechanical action and the pipework to its 1760 state as built by George England. The work was entrusted to William Drake of Buckfastleigh, Devon.

Marilyn demonstrated the organ by playing several pieces including ‘O Mensch bewein’ of Bach as well as a Magnificat by Caspar Kerll which set alternate verses for organ and choir. In the absence of a full-blown choir, Marilyn and her colleague sang the choral verses to plainchant.
Christ's Chapel Dulwich
Members who played afterwards quickly became aware of the instrument’s glories with tone colours ranging from the throaty Vox Humana on the Choir to the deafening five-rank Cornet on the Great. There were also some features which were conventional in keyboard instruments of the period, such as shorter naturals on the manuals and the short octave notes in the bass of the Great and Choir (i.e. split sharp keys eliminating redundant chromatic notes). Technically, the organ is tuned to fifth-comma mean-tone which rendered keys beyond two or three sharps or flats virtually unplayable, and keys such as B major being excruciatingly painful. However, the real delight for me in playing this organ was the responsiveness of the touch. Once the player is accustomed to the lightness of the action, this instrument encourages a fresh approach to phrasing and articulation and a radical re-evaluation of interpretation issues. Certainly for its kind this is a gem of an organ, well-suited to the performance of earlier organ music and ideal as a teaching and practice instrument.

Thanks are due to Melvin for arranging this as his swan song before I took over.

John Eagles