A surprising plus of the pandemic has been discovering how successful organ concerts can be when taken online. Nothing can beat the experience of hearing a magnificent instrument played live in the acoustic it was built for. But online cameras take you to a privileged position right behind the organist’s shoulder, to admire the sheer physicality of creating music on a complex piece of musical machinery.

Christopher Stokes plays the Willis organ at Freemasons' Hall © Freemasons' Hall
Christopher Stokes plays the Willis organ at Freemasons' Hall
© Freemasons' Hall

For his online organ concert on the recently refurbished Willis organ in the Grand Temple at the Freemasons’ Hall in London, Christopher Stokes chose an appropriately eclectic programme in the classic Town Hall style, not afraid to include salon pieces along with highlights from prime organ repertoire.

The core of his recital was ideally suited to this instrument: music by Elgar, Thalben-Ball, Howells and Walton. Stokes captured superbly the buttoned-up emotionalism of high English Romanticism, with its need to be touching and eloquent without tipping into sentimentality or playing to the gallery. In particular the emotional arch of Herbert Howells' Psalm Prelude, Set 1 no.1 was managed to perfection.

The Grand Temple, Freemasons' Hall © Freemasons' Hall
The Grand Temple, Freemasons' Hall
© Freemasons' Hall

Elgar’s organ music requires a nifty response from the player to changes of mood, often within a barline. Stokes allowed the first movement of the Organ Sonata no.1 in G major to ebb and flow naturally without ever sounding mannered or overwrought.

All organists are tempted by the imperious Tuba stop on this organ, a set of pipes that command their own air supply from a dedicated blower in the basement. How better to show it off than by including Norman Cocker’s Tuba Tune in the programme? – a piece where the tuba tune itself can get lost towards the end unless it’s played on a stop as heroic as the one on the Willis.

Christopher Stokes © Freemasons' Hall
Christopher Stokes
© Freemasons' Hall

This style of organ was built to be a complete orchestra, so an arrangement of Walton’s Crown Imperial was a perfect choice to end with, Stokes once again demonstrating his mastery of the controlled build of the music to an ardent and stirring end.

Freemasons’ Hall must be pleased that over five thousand people from around the world had viewed the concert online within a few days of its premiere, a reach unlikely for an organ recital pre-Covid. They should also be congratulated on the excellent and unfussy camera work – there were just a few cutaways to the magnificent Art Deco building, but generally we were left to watch a master musician at work, and to enjoy his informative introductions to each piece of music.

This performance was reviewed from the Freemasons' Hall YouTube video stream