Who or what inspired you to take up the organ and make it your career?
Two simple events: first, sitting next to the piano on my first day at primary school (I asked to have a go after assembly was over, and started piano lessons soon after); second, the local church organist breaking the world record for non-stop organ playing the same year. My parents took me to hear him one afternoon, and I was hooked. No great philosophical epiphanies; it really was as simple as that.
Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?
Some really superb teachers; and many other musicians, some organists, some not. Good singers, increasingly.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
In an obvious sense there have been plenty of tricky pieces to learn, and a few times I’ve been called in to learn very difficult things at short notice – overnight, more than once. But probably most people have a story like that to tell. If you’re an organist I think it can be easy to get into a rut; that sort of comfort zone can be very alluring, so the constant challenge of my career is to give myself a nudge at the right time and keep looking outwards as a musician.
What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?
Concertos are always a bit of an exotic experience for organists – opportunities to play them don’t come up all that often. In orchestral/ensemble situations, being one of a team who has to conform to someone else’s requirements, when you spend most of your performing life being your own musical boss, is demanding. There’s also the added dimension of having others reliant on you. The most stressful week by far of my career to date involved playing the (horrendously difficult) organ part in a contemporary orchestral score – an hour of counting and a minute of terror. But it’s satisfying being part of a group rather than a lone recitalist – I especially love continuo playing for just this reason.
Which recordings are you most proud of?
Judith Bingham’s ‘The Everlasting Crown’ I think, but I really can’t bear listening to my own playing, so ‘proud’ in this context is a relative term. I just can’t be in the same room with my playing of 10 years ago.
Do you have a favourite concert venue?
Sacred – St Paul’s Cathedral, London; secular, Royal Albert Hall. No matter how hard you try to be hard-bitten about it, walking out to perform in the Proms is a genuine thrill. As a listener, I like Symphony Hall in Birmingham.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Alfred Brendel; Wilhelm Furtwangler; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; Carlos Kleiber; J S Bach.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I’m going to cheat a bit here because some of the most memorable moments for me are to do with recordings. First, hearing Elgar 1 for the first time; the slow movement was playing in a London record shop where I had gone to buy some Dufay or something, and I had never heard anything so beautiful as that slow movement. I was literally (much-abused word, but accurate here) rooted to the spot for 10 minutes. Second, hearing ‘authentic’ instruments for the first time (English Concert, Brandenburg Concertos, c. 1983); I can remember the clarity and brilliance of No. 2 as if it was last week. And, very much less properly, having a helpless giggling fit all the way through Ligeti’s ‘Atmospheres’ in the RFH when I was 8 – we had been taken on a school outing by our very thoughtful music teacher, and I’m ashamed to admit I disgraced myself. Mr Cole, if you’re reading this – I’m sorry.
What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?
Bach and Jehan Alain. Bach, late Beethoven, Brahms. Schubert, Schumann, Mahler, Messiaen, R Strauss…
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?
Work very hard; don’t fool yourself that second best is ever acceptable. Keep your eyes and ears constantly open, your mouth mostly shut, and be open to the possibility of learning things from anyone, anywhere, no matter how apparently unlikely the context. Read Schumann’s Musical Rules for the Young, there’s a lot of good sense in there, however quaint some of his recommendations seem now. ‘Studying is unending’.
What are you working on at the moment?
Mainly contemporary things – Judith Bingham, Nico Muhly, some Jonathan Harvey. Bach’s Clavierübung Part III needs revisiting. A Wagner transcription which I have been asked to play for a special occasion and would really much rather hear played by an orchestra than by me, but I’m stuck with it. Shortly to start writing a PhD dissertation, so spending a lot of time in libraries.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Playing, when it’s going well.
What is your present state of mind?
Pensive, a bit sleep-deprived
Recognised as “one of the brightest and most active English recitalists” who “plays with immaculate finish and buoyancy” (Classic CD), Stephen Farr is widely regarded as one of the finest organists of his generation, with a virtuoso technique and an impressive stylistic grasp of a wide-ranging repertoire. He combines a busy freelance playing career with the posts of Director of Music at St Paul’s Knightsbridge in London, and ACE Foundation Director of Music at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
Read Stephen’s full biography here