Members Playing Day at Embleton
16th June 2001

Review by "Clarabella"

The Cumbrian Society of Organists enjoyed once again an evening of playing, listening and teaching with David Sanger at his Old Wesleyan Chapel in Embleton, and took away a treasure trove of advice on performance and practising, and new insight into the pieces played. It is a great privilege for us to have this yearly event, bearing in mind that David teaches many of the top young players in Britain and from abroad, and has a very busy schedule of teaching and performing.

The audience consisted not only of organists, but also interested listeners who do not play the organ. Five players took part this year - variously described by David as 'lambs to the slaughter', 'guinea pigs' or even 'rabbits'! - apparently a term used in Denmark. The pieces chosen were mostly quite small scale, and several players were asked to provide a second piece at short notice in order to make up the time. This may partly explain the general lack of preparation among participants - sadly, most players were performing far below the standard they could achieve. Our Chairman, however, provided a fine example of committed preparation and 'putting his soul into it', which shone through in spite of the odd wrong note.

Chris Price began the evening by playing the Vth movement from Vierne's 1st Symphony, Andante (quasi Adagio), and then Allegro Comodo from Six Pieces by Frank Bridge. For the Vierne, David commended Chris on having a good edition, namely Durand, although it is not very clear in places. Dover, however, who use the same plates produce an edition which is both clearer to read and cheaper.

Slow practise of left hand and pedal was advocated for the double pedalling and intricate left hand writing in bars 40-52. For bars 69-71, we were advised that it was important to come off cleanly with the manual chord before coming in with the pedal demi-semiquavers. And in bars 89-97, we found that it was very easy to play the notes of the quick repeated left hand figure in the wrong order.

The Bridge piece, David told us, could be thought of as 'Allegro accommodatingly' perhaps. That is, it shouldn't be played too fast, and we should think of a conductor having to beat out four in a bar. We came across difficulties at bars 35-48 when the right hand has to hold down octaves while playing another line, and found that much finger substitution was necessary to keep it smooth. David asked that the Lento near the end be approached more gently, and suggested the use of the Swell Box for the last chord.

Sam Hicks played the beautiful Fugue from Mendelssohn's 6th Sonata and Psalm 75 by Klaas Bolt. The importance of having a good edition was again stressed, the one that David recommended for the Mendelssohn being the Breitkopf edition. It seems to be an ongoing frustration for David to have to teach people who use bad editions - and I know I have been guilty of it. Mendelssohn's original metronome marks, we were told, seem very reliable, and for this piece it is crotchet equals 96, which should be followed.

It is very easy to play the subject in the Mendelssohn Fugue, for example in the 1st bar, as if the first note is the upbeat to the second note, which is what Sam did. We found that by lengthening the first note, we then know that it is the first beat of the bar, and were reminded that lengthening and shortening notes and silences is the only way we can create accents on the organ. Sam was urged to think more about touch when playing. Manual changes were not advised, firstly because no manual changes are indicated in the original and also because to do so makes it difficult to hear where the different parts are going. However, stops could be added at the 4th bar from the end to heighten the intensity.

Bolt was a new composer for me, and I enjoyed this cheerful piece. He apparently improvised first and then wrote the music down. Sam was advised to play slower to have more chance of getting the right notes and to make the semi-quavers clearer. He was also to make sure that the figures with 2 semiquavers followed by a quaver were not played as triplets. A bolder and brighter registration, and the Swell reed coupled to the pedal, was suggested.

Colin Rae followed with Bach's magnificent Prelude in e minor, and had obviously absorbed and acted upon David's comments last year about his playing of the Bach b minor Prelude. A few weeks prior to this event, Colin had heard a distinguished organist perform the e minor Prelude and Fugue, and had decided that her registration was too light and that she lacked Gravitas and passion, and vowed that he would play today with bags of passion. However, David required still more gravity, took off the Great Piccolo 2', added the Swell 16', removed the odd flute, and stressed that e minor was the tragic key.

Colin certainly put a lot of effort into both the preparation and the performance of this piece, though for the latter David suggested maybe he was putting in too much. In bars 65 to 72, and elsewhere, there was a slight disagreement about how to play the right hand chords. Colin maintained that he liked them slurred together because the top notes of the chords were in step. David however recommended that they be played with a break between them, saying that although Bach does occasionally slur across the barline, he probably wouldn't have done so here. I guess one always has to apply principles in context - Colin's idea of playing successive notes that are in step, in a slurred fashion seems generally a good thing to do, but in this case where you need to emphasise the chord following the upbeat, the effect is quite lost if they are slurred.

For the phrasing of the bass line in bars 103-110, David recommended breaking after the first note of the bar, and to think of arriving and departing. The long trills in various parts of the piece were tending to be uneven, and the other hand doing something quite different from what it was meant to.

In bars 90-93, Colin was commended on his left hand playing of the dotted quaver- semiquaver passage. Again, he seems to have learned from previous experience, from when he played the Bach 'St.Anne' Prelude in Eb to David 3 years previously. Evenness of pedalling, however, is more of a problem. When Colin complained that it was 'endemic'(?!), David, who is not known for his acceptance of excuses, suggested that perhaps chiropody was the answer!

Clare Mingins then played Psalm 36 by Sweelinck and Fuga in g minor by Reincken. The former is titled 'Des boosdoenders will seer quaet' (or, My heart showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly), and the tune upon which this is based we know well as Lasst uns Erfreuen. David thought that the tempo this was played at was slightly too slow, and recommended playing at about minim equals 40. However, one needs to be careful when starting this piece to play slow enough to be able to play the faster bits later.

Early fingering, although very useful in bringing out the articulation, and usually being very comfortable once familiar, shouldn't be followed slavishly. David suggested that possibly for the demi-semiquavers one could use an alternative fingering if one was not slick at the early fingering near to performance.

The second variation of the Sweelinck Psalm was played with 8' and 4' flutes on the Swell with the Great 4' Principal coupled to the pedal, played an octave lower, to reinforce the tune in the tenor line - which is probably not very historically correct. This would only have been possible on an organ of the time if there was a Great to pedal coupler, and no pull-down pedal. And one would not have been able to play the tenor in the pedal at pitch with an 8' stop as the compass of the pedal would not have gone above d', or very often c'. The 3rd variation, however, cannot be imagined without a Pedal 8' reed, and this is unusual in Sweelinck's psalm settings.

David advised for where a trill is written out in semiquavers, this sounds quite boring played as written, and is probably an indication for a free trill. In bar 97 where there is a difficult meter change, work was needed to bring this off. And for the tricky right hand sixths near the end of the third variation, David suggested leaning on the first one of four, which somehow helps provide the momentum to play the others more easily.

In the Reincken piece, David again called for the playing to be a notch up on the metronome mark. He said that we could think of the subject as having 4 parts, and the player should bring this out more. The final chord was played as a Tierce de Picardie, and, although this was not written, David agreed that it would be a bit lugubrious to have a minor chord at the end of such a lively piece. Perhaps it could be played simply as octave G's.

Steven Crosbie rounded off the evening with Mendelssohn's Allegro moderato maestoso from the Berlin-Krakow manuscripts, Vol.3, no.V11, and Grand Choeur by William Faulkes. Again, slow practise was urged, and we were reminded that we often think we are practising slowly, when actually we are not. A good method is to take the tempo aimed for, and slow it down by an simple fraction, eg. for 4/4 counting the same 4 on each crotchet length. This drastic slowing down was obviously a completely foreign idea to Steven, as I expect it is for most of us - we are too often in too much of a hurry to learn a piece properly. But, as David has told us before, if you are in a hurry, practise slowly.

We enjoyed the Chairman's entertaining speech at the end, as always, although his joking comment about getting one's genes modified to become brilliant organists reflects the misuse that the idea of 'talent' gets. How much talent is simply hard work together with the right guidance and opportunities? Here, at Embleton each year, is a tremendous opportunity for us to improve our performing skills and our understanding of music, and from this to inspire others with our playing of the music we love, whether in a small village church or in a cathedral. Our heartfelt thanks to David for providing this opportunity.


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