Performing the organ works from the Lent Anthology
Huw Morgan writes:
Part of our creed at Firehead is not just to create new music, but to be advocates for new music through our performances during the liturgy and in concerts and recitals. With this in mind, here are a few thoughts as I prepare for a recital on 31 March at St Peter’s Cathedral in Hamilton, New Zealand.
For this concert, being as it is in the season of Lent I have selected three works from the Firehead Lent Anthology – Frederick Frahm’s Seelenbraütigam (page 34), Michael Bonaventure’s Interlude V (p. 28), and my own Hymn Prelude on “Herzliebster Jesu” (p.21). You may see preview scores of each work via the link to the anthology above, on the pages indicated. A recording of Michael’s work is available here, and a recording of my own is here.
The instrument at St Peter’s Cathedral is fine, bright and direct, with good, well-voiced mixtures, flutes of contrasting timbres, some fiery reeds and interesting possibilities for a wide range of colour. The full stop list is on the South Island Organ Company’s website is here – the instrument was built by Croft of Auckland in 1976 to a forward-looking specification designed by Guyon Wells, a New Zealander of prodigious musical literacy and intelligence who died early in 2017.
Adam Drese’s (1620-1701) melody Seelenbraütigam is most commonly sung to the text “Jesu, still lead on”, a Lenten favourite of Lutheran congregations. Frederick treats the melody with a certain amount of freedom, breaking away from the rather four-square metrical structure, creating something more supple. Against this he sets a flowing left-hand ostinato and repeating bass pattern – beautiful, plangent dissonances with surprising resolutions arise from this treatment. The texture is reversed at the midpoint, with the melody now appearing in the tenor. Frederick has requested simple registrations but that does not mean the performer has to be restrained or bland – pick the finest combination of 8′ and 4′ flute at your disposal and find an 8′ solo sound that is warm, complex and vocal. For my performance I am combining the Great’s 8′ principal and 8′ stopped diapason. Do not be afraid to find a different solo sound for the second section if balance is a problem when the texture is reversed. Performers should take note of the slow tempo and take care not to speed up, particularly through the triplets.
Johan Crüger’s (1598-1662) chorale melody “Herzliebster Jesu” is most commonly sung to “Ah Holy Jesu, how hast though offended”, Robert Bridges’ fine translation of Johann Heermann’s 1630 hymn. I have set the melody in the pedals without decoration and with rhythmic structure intact. Again, a generous solo 8′ sound is needed – a warm reed would work well, though I have chosen a mixture of 8′ flutes, principals and the Swell’s salicional. The manuals create a mysterious harmonic tapestry – two separate 8′ flutes are needed, so I have selected the Great stopped diapason for the right hand and the Choir gedackt for the left. With the Choir box partially closed an interesting pulsing effect is possible, particularly if a legato touch is used. Performers may select a tempo that suits the instrument and building, with a slower speed more appropriate to a more reverberant acoustic, and vice versa – once this tempo is set, care should be taken to keep it as even as possible.
Michael’s Interlude V is a purely abstract work, though one that is firmly intended for use in the liturgy as well as being suitable for concert performance. Part of an ongoing series of sets of Preludes, Interludes and Postludes (more details here), this particular movement has a meditative and searching quality ideal for the Lent. Michael is a composer of great subtlety and thoughtfulness: while on the surface this piece may appear simple and repetitive, it is anything but. Patterns are established and then subverted; gaps lengthened or shortened; material appears subtly changed and in different orders: all of this creates a tension in the listener as expectations are constantly, if gently, confounded.
Two things are key to the effective performance of this work – careful attention to rhythm and pulse; and well-chosen registrations. The performer will need to rehearse the boundaries between sections thoroughly (particularly spending time being sure how to find the four-part pedal chord), so as to be able to move seamlessly from one figure to another. A plangent, slightly astringent oboe sound is perfect for the opening section; if (like St Peter’s) there is no contrasting clarinet stop, 8′ & 4′ flutes will do just as well, to maintain the internal tensions of the second section’s held chords. The third motif should be as loud as possible on the Great, where reeds may be boosted by principals and flutes if needs be, to create a thick, ominous sound. The pedal chord may be played on a 4′ flute drawn from one of the manuals if nothing suitable is available on the pedal; the two 8’s at bar 15 should be warm, complex, and weighty. Like all good music, this is a work that rewards the performer’s careful preparation and the listener’s careful attention
I hope these notes are useful, and give some insight into the type of music we are advocating here at Firehead – varied and detailed music that has a place in both the liturgy and in concert.