Saturday, 30 April 2011

Alex West: Return Organ and Piano Recital Glenorchy Wednesday 27 April

From three manuals on the Nicholson at St Margaret's
to two on the Bevington organ at Glenorchy
As the Glenorchy Lunchtime Concert Series draws to a close another talented local musician returns to entertain us. Alex West is a mathematician at the Meteorological Office here in Exeter, and also a pianist and organist. He has appeared on 'Lily's Light Bites' classical music programme on Phonic FM, and also collaborated with 'cellist Morwenna Del Mar in the 'Devon Oxford and Cambridge Societies Annual Concert' on 20 October last year. (The post is below Ruth's flute and piano itinerary.)
Alex completed his maths degree at Cambridge, where he was awarded a scholarship as an organist, having already obtained his DipRSM as a pianist. Now working towards his membership of the Royal College of Organists, Alex is given ample opportunity to practice on the Bevington organ at Glenorchy - by the Glenorchy church organist, David Lee. In return Alex gave us all a free recital of organ and piano works on Wednesday this week.  To provide us with plenty of variety he sandwiched three beautiful romantic piano pieces between three equally beautiful romantic organ pieces.

Paris World Exposition 1867
Louis Lefébure-Wély
Alex's first organ piece was from 1867, the year of the third Exposition Universelle in Paris - equivalent to Prince Albert's Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851. Living in Paris at the time was a composer with the wonderfully romantic name of Louis Lefébure-Wély, who chose that year to embark on the composition of his greatest, and subsequently most famous work, 'L'Organiste Moderne', a collection of organ pieces in all the styles to that date. It was completed two years later just before Lefébure-Wély died at the age of 52. He included two 'Sorties' which manage to combine the classical organ sound with the raucous oom-pah and tinkling of the fairground steam-organ. Alex chose the B flat Sortie, and manged to extract the maximum fun from the music and the many different sounds of the organ. Interspersed and overlaid on the fairground sound was a lovely tune in the upper register which was contrastingly gentle on the ear. A dignified, but very exciting, day out at the crowded Paris Exposition!

Charles-Marie Widor
Widor's organ at the
e Saint-Sulpice, Paris.
The great 1862 Cavaillé-Coll
Continuing in the French romantic vein, Alex played us a movement from an organ 'symphony'. These solo instrumental works were in romantic style and effected the style of a symphony. The first large scale organ symphonies were written in the Germanic state of Hesse by a follower of the Bach school of organ music, Wilhelm Vilckmar - in 1867. César Frank had published something similar in Paris five year's earlier, having included a 'Grand Pièce Symphonique' in his 'Six Pièces' for organ. Parisian composers Charles-Marie Widor and his pupil Louis Vierne continued the trend, composing 16 organ symphonies between them. Widor completed his first four (Opus 13) in 1872 and, seven years later, published his now famous 'Symphonie pour Orgue No 5' (Opus 42.1).
Eschewing the hugely popular final 'Toccata' from 'Symphonie pour Orgue No 5', Alex played the second movement, the allegro cantabile. With a sound more reminiscent of an accordion than the fairground barrel-organ of Lefébure-Wély's 'Sortie', this was a much softer and more relaxing piece. Alex maintained a compelling single line on the manual while keeping up a comfortable rhythm in the bass pedals, ending with a beautiful bass run to finish - played with his left foot.

And just one on the Venables grand piano
Having transported us to late nineteenth century Paris with the help of the Bevington Organ, Alex switched to the equally superb Venables Grand Piano. Only the week before, the Venables had been used by Frances Waters and Josephine Pickering for their astoundingly virtuosic programme of piano duets. With this in mind Alex treated us to a dazzling selection of French - and German - romantic masterpieces.
Chopin in his final year
(photographed 1849 by
Louis-Auguste Bisson)

The first was 'Ballade No 3' by Frédéric Chopin, Opus 47. (Chopin was really Polish of course - but lived and worked in Paris as an exile.) The Ballades (there are four in all) belong to an earlier period. Alex's choice, No 3, was composed in 1841 for Pauline de Noailles (allegedly) depicting in music the poem 'Undine' by Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz.
(Albert Lortzing's 1845 opera of the same name, which we heard on Phonic FM on 4 January, follows the same theme of water sprites but is based on another 'Undine' story by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué).
Alex played with studied concentration, always ready to unleash the full volume of the instrument, but returning repeatedly to a gentle treble rhythm. A great composition  beautifully played.
'The Fire Tower'
Paris Exposition 1889
Debussy plays piano
The next two pieces were in a very different style. A younger man, living in a later period, though still in Paris, the twenty one year old Claude Debussy started the composition of his 'Deux Arabesques' in 1889. In that year there was a fifth 'Exposition Universelle' in Paris, and Gustav Eiffel put the city firmly on the map with the construction of 'La Tour Eiffel'. At over one thousand feet tall, it remained the world's tallest building for over forty years. Alex played both movements. The andantino con moto was sweet and dreamy, much simpler than the Chopin but compelling listening, full of rippling downward runs. Allegretto scherzando was faster but still light with a lovely sudden chord ending to finish it off.
Hungarian Folk Musicians 1895
Franz Liszt photographed in 1886
by Gaspard-Felix Tournachon
Six years before Debussy began composing his Arabesques, Richard Wagner had suffered a heart attack and died in Venice. His contemporary, Franz Liszt, composed two piano pieces entitled 'La Lugubre Gondola' to commemorate the funeral procession along the Grand Canal. In the same year Liszt resumed a project he had begun thirty years before, collecting and arranging traditional Magyar folk tunes from his native Hungary for his 'Hungarian Rhapsodies'.  He managed to complete the nineteenth before his death in 1886. Alex played the penultimate 'rhapsody', 'Ungarischen Ausstellung in Budapest' ('Hungarian Exhibition in Budapest'). The opening was somewhat funereal, but the pace built until the sound of the keys was like scampering mice, a simple sound which then developed into a grand dance. The piece was very complex and Alex was forced to abandon the score and play from memory so that he could concentrate on the keyboard. A challenging piece masterfully played.
Léon Boëllmann
Boellmann with the 1852 Cavaillé-Coll
at the Église Saint-Vincent-de Paul in Paris
Finally, back to the Bevington organ - and back to Paris! In 1895 Léon Boëllmann was organist at the Église Saint-Vincent-de-Paul (the post formerly held by the inventor of text for the visually impaired, Louis Braille, by the way). He is now famous for his Opus 25, 'Suite Gothique', composed in that year. Sadly he died only two years later at the age of only 35. The suite has since been arranged for brass band and provides a rousing finish to many brass band concerts - and to Alex's keyboard concert as well! The introductory choral in C minor opens with loud chords before suddenly dropping to a whisper. After two repeats of this the movement winds to a gentle close. As Alex says, it is very 'gothic' in tone and would be very suitable music to accompany Béla Lugosi rising from the crypt as Count Dracula. To make us more jolly, the menuet gothique in C major goes back to that fairground organ sound, but with a gentler feel. The music takes on a more serious feel as it leads up to its triumphant conclusion. Alex adjusted the stops for 'Prière a Notre Dame' ('Prayer to Our Lady'). The soft reedy piping of the new setting was a surprising contrast. Alex considered this movement 'schmaltz', but his playing was gentle and thoughtful, with gently increasing energy. It may have been the way he played it, but this was a very pleasing tune - popular for weddings one might imagine. The final toccata was just the thing to finish the concert. Starting with a very soft and eerie tune in the bass (deftly pedalled) the tension increases as the simple bass line is overlaid by a changing treble melody of chords. As Alex built up the volume and opened more stops a strange edge crept into the sound, like the rasp of a duck-call. As the music became louder and more frenzied, Alex remained calm. Finally with a sudden burst of power he charged towards the huge chord conclusion.
A very different Hungarian
Béla Lugosi as Count Dracula
- cue Boëllmann's 'Suite Gothique'

The choice of music was perfect, wonderfully played, and finished on just the right note. The whole performance took slightly longer than usual, leaving Alex with time for only a few succinct words at the end, "See you next time." I certainly hope so Alex!

That was to have been the final concert of the present series. However, Joyce Clarke has arranged to give one more piano recital next Wednesday lunchtime, when she will treat us to the music she will be playing in Venice later in the month.

Another familiar Glenorchy performer, Weymouth pianist Duncan Honeybourne will be here next month, as part of the Exmouth Festival, for a concert with clarinettist (and professor of clarinet at Tinity College of Music in London) Fiona Cross.

Glenorchy Lunchtime Concerts
Glenorchy Church Exmouth
Wednesday 4 May12.30pm
Piano: Joyce Clarke
Baldassare Galuppi: Sonata in B flat
(early 18th Century Venetian composer,
born on the island of Burano)
Brahms: Intermezzo in A op118 no 2
Chopin: Impromptu No. 1 Op. 29
Chopin: Fantaisie-Impromptu Op. 66
Harold Noble: Chanson d'Amour
Mendelssohn:Venetian Gondola Song
                      in F sharp minor Op. 30 No. 6
Mendelssohn: Rondo Capriccioso in E Op. 14
Admission Free

Exmouth Festival
Glenorchy Church Exmouth
Thursday 2 June 7.30pm
Piano: Duncan Honeybourne
Clarinet: Fiona Cross
Donations please - £4

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