It is often said that the concert hall is the sanctuary of musicians and music lovers alike: frequent concertgoers flock to their favourite venues as regularly as Sunday service, dressed in their finest and observing the sacred rites and rituals of the classical concert. What an interesting spin, therefore, to see the view switched and church turned concert hall at Westminster Abbey for a recital by organist and conductor Stephen Farr, the first of the abbey’s Summer Organ Festival 2012 concert series.

Stephen Farr
Stephen Farr

Farr began the programme with Huw Watkins’ Pièce d’Orgue. Written in 2005, the piece juxtaposes soft, melodious sections with violent crashes of dissonant chords. The large scrunches of sound resonated impressively around the Abbey, and the piece certainly gave a mystical and intriguing (if somewhat unusual) beginning to the recital.

Nicolaus Bruhns, a pupil of the great organist Buxtehude, provided the next piece in the programme: his Praeludium in G. The beginning of the piece seemed a strange contrast given the contemporary piece before, and the transition between the two styles was not completely convincing at first, but as the piece unfolded, Farr’s interpretation became more assured. The navigation of the fugal passages was particularly impressive – the different voices spoke with attentive articulation in each individual part and even when the texture was awash with counterpoint, it was easy to distinguish the different lines.

To follow, the audience was treated to the world première of Jacquet’s Ghost by Judith Bingham, a small suite based on a work by Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre. The piece was commissioned by Stephen Farr himself and originally written for the organ at Trinity College, Cambridge. Based on harmonic and melodic motifs from an unmeasured prelude by Jacquet (a female French composer and keyboardist born in the late 17th century), the work is comprised of four movements – “Tombeau”, “Labryrinthe”, “Pastourelle Somnambule” and “Envoi” – moving gradually from quiet to loud, movement by movement, giving the impression of a distant idea becoming clearer as the performance unfolds. Farr allowed every movement of the piece to teeter on the edge, brimming with excitement while never feeling unsafe – the difficult balance of anticipation with assurance and security was masterfully handled, and all the pieces were intelligently taken care of. “Tombeau” was quiet and atmospheric; “Labryrinthe” was full of interesting pointillist effects, the choice of keyboards and stops giving a celeste-like quality; “Pastourelle Somnambule” moved more freely and boldly. “Envoi” was an exciting finish to this wonderful new piece, which I hope gets the attention I feel it deserves in organ programmes in the future.

The programme continued with Liszt’s Variations on ‘Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen’, a set of variations on the theme of a Bach cantata. The piece was originally written for piano and transcribed as an organ piece by Liszt himself, and the warmth and power of the instrumental medium certainly suited the piece, the ferocious grandeur of the louder passages emphasised tenfold by the feeling of the air physically vibrating around the abbey, the delicacy of the whispering pianissimo dolente eerily quiet in such a giving acoustic. Farr paced the piece with musical confidence and the performance was technically assured from the outset: the chromatic motifs swooped up and down and the interpretation was grand yet not overbearing.

After this, a detour into slightly more contemporary waters again with two pieces by French composer and organist Jehan Alain: Le Jardin Suspendu and Aria. Le Jardin Suspendu was written in 1934 and the influence from both Debussy and Messiaen is clear in the writing. With resonant, atmospheric harmonies and an intriguingly high pitch throughout, Le Jardin was a wonderful palate-cleanser after such a moreish helping of Liszt, and the clean simplicity with which it was presented was refreshing. The Aria was more oriental in flavour, eastern harmonies blending with French contemporary washes of sound, but still a delightful change given the gravity of some of the earlier, larger-scale works.

As a finale, Farr played Patrick Gowers’ Toccata, apt in its choice given it was written as a showpiece for ending recitals. Gowers himself said of the piece that “It is not based on singing, dancing, walking, running, heartbeats (or even machines!) but on a boulder falling down the side of a steep mountain, sometimes spinning in the air, and between whiles, coming down to earth with a bump”. The irregularity of its construction was shown to the full by Farr’s quixotic playing, the quasi-comical mimicking of the first motif becoming enveloped by torrents of scales and passagework that filled the church, the piece drawn to a close by a gigantic wall of sound as a continuous chord echoed over the heads of the audience.