Notes and Editorial Reviews
Delphian is an Edinburgh-based label who have, since 2000, been quietly but studiously bringing music-lovers the best of Scottish music and, more often, Scottish performances of great music. They now branch out into this marvellous book - a first, I think, for them. It is a real treat: we are informed that only 2,000 copies will ever be made (mine was number 193) and that, at the time of writing, only 700 were commercially available. My advice is to waste no time and to get a copy while you still can.
It’s probably fair to call this a coffee-table book. A glossy hardback of under 90 pages, it features detailed biographies of 22 great instruments that reside in Scotland’s capital. Some are public and famous, such as the organs of the Usher Hall or the three cathedrals. Some are rare and do most of their playing behind closed doors, such as an instrument from the Edinburgh University’s keyboard collection, or the organ in the home of John Kitchen, Edinburgh’s City Organist. With each organ we get a potted history of the building in which it resides and a detailed description of the instrument itself, together with the instrument’s full specifications. Glossy colour photographs abound, both of the instrument and its settings. The book is a real delight to hold and to thumb through, acting almost as an impromptu history of music in the city: we find out about the public recitals that were so popular when the Usher Hall was built in 1914, the spate of church building that arose in the mid-Victorian era, the dramas of the Reformation and the vexed question of whether music would be allowed in Presbyterian Kirks. Each chapter, normally consisting of only four pages, including photographs and specifications, is scholarly while remaining readable and engaging. You could read the whole thing in less than thirty minutes, but any reader will probably find himself savouring each chapter like a fine wine, accompanied by the music from each instrument which is featured on four generously filled CDs.
The running order of the organs on the CDs is the same as that of the text and listening to the whole set is not just a musical tour of Edinburgh, but a tour of what the organ is capable of doing. Each organ is like a distinct character, sound entirely different from one another so that selection is never dull. Predictably, the big public instruments sound thrilling and are given repertoire to match. St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, in particular, conjures a sound of immensity and splendour so as to fulfil the space in which it sits. The St Cuthbert’s organ too sounds especially magnificent: grand and powerful in Gigout’s
Grand Choeur Dialogue and sparkling like a kaleidoscope in Vierne’s
Carillon de Westminster. Most importantly, perhaps, the engineers capture the environment and acoustic of each building very well indeed: St Thomas’ Junction Road sounds homely and reverberant, while large ceremonial organs like St Giles’ carry a big sound to fill a big space. Only the McEwan Hall organ sounds unusually limited, at least at first, but that’s more because Judith Weir’s
Wild Mossy Mountains doesn’t show it off at its best; Avril Anderson’s
Repetitive Strain makes up for this later. John Kitchen, the Edinburgh City Organist, writes in the text that “the sound of any organ should be commensurate with the room in which it speaks.” Quite so, and as if to provide a case in point he plays us Sweelinck variations on a practice organ which is located in his own high-ceilinged Edinburgh flat. The sound is utterly charming and its gentle but fruity timbre fits the room perfectly. What a luxury to have a pipe organ in one’s own sitting room!
As another case in point, the Enharmonic Chamber Organ of St Cecilia’s Hall, part of Edinburgh University’s collection of early keyboard instruments, comes across as a dignified gent from a former era and is given early Baroque English music to play as a consequence. The result is a wonderfully harmonious match of repertoire to instrument and it allows the listener to revel all the more in both.
The selection is also well programmed so as to point up diversity: going from the homely sound of Pilrig St Paul’s to the grandeur of Widor’s 6
th Organ Symphony on the organ of the Metropolitan Cathedral is an arresting change.
Even as an Edinburgh resident of many years, there are plenty of entirely new discoveries for me here too. Morningside Parish Church sounds refined, almost wistful in its tone, until a lovely set of variations by Michael Festing shows off its range of colours at its very best. Reid Memorial Church’s organ gives a wonderfully colourful account of Humperdinck’s
Hansel and Gretel Overture, then a gently musing movement from Warlock’s
Capriol Suite. St. Michael’s, Inveresk sounds splendid in Henry Smart’s ceremonial
Postlude in D while the organ of the Royal Order of Scotland, a rather small instrument, sounds gentle, almost domestic and it plays smaller repertoire so as to fulfil its sound potential. The organ of Loretto School comes across as more acidic to me, though the gentle ceremony of St Mary’s, Dalkeith makes a good way of rounding off the entire set.
Performances are splendid throughout and the engineering can only be praised even more highly when you realise that the majority of the recording was done in the freezing winter of 2009/10, where the low humidity played havoc with many of the featured organs. There is a (somewhat tokenistic) foreword from Alexander McCall Smith. For someone who is an organ lover or a lover of Edinburgh, and there are plenty of both, this would make a wonderful gift. The book is due for release in the UK on 8 November 2010: snap it up while you still can.
-- Simon Thompson, MusicWeb International