Loft of Delights – organ recitals at St John’s Smith Square

organ

The splendid venue that is St John’s Smith Square, a beautiful eighteenth century church nestled amongst government offices and ministries in the heart of Westminster, is fast becoming one of my favourite London concert spaces – not just for piano music but also chamber, orchestral and choral music. I’ve even performed there myself, albeit a mere “15 minutes of fame” as part of St John’s 24-hour Music Marathon! And since September, I’ve been attending the monthly lunchtime organ recitals through which I’ve discovered a real liking for organ music. This is in part down to a friend of mine who adores Bach’s magnificent Passacaglia in C minor, BWV582 (which we heard in November, performed by Peter Stevens), but who would probably never go to an organ concert without my instigation.

The organ at St John’s is not original, though the main organ case, built by Jordan, Byfield and Bridges in 1734 acquired from St George’s church in Great Yarmouth, compliments the wonderful Baroque interior. It was installed in St John’s in 1972, and a new, larger organ case was built to accommodate the new instrument, built by Orgelbau Klais Bonn, which offers an enormous range of musical colour and versatility, suitable for repertoire from the German Baroque to high romanticism and contemporary repertoire.

There’s something really special about hearing an organ being played in the grandeur of a ecclesiastical building such as St John’s Smith Square. Whatever one’s religious, or otherwise leanings, one cannot help but be uplifted and awestruck by the volume, range and variety of sounds, the way those deep base notes swell and vibrate in the pit of the stomach, and the soaring sounds of the upper registers.

The organ series at St John’s Smith Square, now in its fifth edition, offers a broad range of performers and music, including organ favourites such as Bach’s ‘Ein Feste Burg’ and works by the leading composers for organ, Louis Vierne and Olivier Messiaen. In fact, it was the concerts featuring works by Messiaen which first drew me to this series, and David Titterington’s profound, vibrant and intensely absorbing performance of ‘La Nativité du Seigneur’ on 15 December was an example of the exceptional quality of these concerts (David has also recorded this work for Hyperion). Earlier in the season, we enjoyed a wonderfully mixed programme of music by Mendelssohn, Bach, Wesley and Messiaen by Jennifer Bate (a world authority on the organ music of Messiaen). The concert also included a work by Jennifer Bate herself, her ‘Variations on a Gregorian Theme’.

Seating is unreserved in St John’s for these concerts so one can choose to sit almost beneath the instrument if one so desires. A camera in the organ loft projects onto a screen on the stage, offering a fascinating glimpse of the organist at work (I had no idea it was so energetic, with hands and feet engaged for much of the time!). From the point of view of the pianist’s technique, I found it particularly interesting to see how the organist achieves legato effects, given the technical demands and mechanics of the instrument. And the sheer physical sound of the instrument, its richness, textural variety and surprising delicacy, has been quite unexpected, and something I look forward to exploring further at future concerts.

Monthly lunchtime organ recitals continue at St John’s Smith Square until June. Full details here