All mod cons: a rebuilt Maynooth organ passes its first test

The personality of the ‘new’ Ruffatti organ at St Patrick’s College chapel is suave, full, luxuriant and finely balanced

The keyboards have optical sensors, there are record and playback functions and Midi connections, and stop combinations can be stored digitally

The keyboards have optical sensors, there are record and playback functions and Midi connections, and stop combinations can be stored digitally

Wed, Apr 30, 2014, 01:00

Henry Wood, the founding conductor of the Proms in London, played the organ as a child. He was good enough at the age of 10 to deputise at a service and earn a half-crown. The reason I remember this fact is that in his autobiography, My Life of Music , he recounts a long-forgotten issue concerning organ practice in the days before you could assume an organ blower to be an electrically operated device. If Wood wanted to practise on an actual organ, as opposed to some other kind of keyboard, he needed someone to do the pumping for him, and that someone had to be paid.

The fact that for centuries the greatest climaxes of the king of instruments were only achievable by virtue of heaving, sweating bodies in the background, put the instrument in a new perspective for me. It is not for nothing that the king of instruments won its sobriquet. It was capable of what we now regard as an orchestral volume and a variety of sonority long before orchestras capable of that level of sound came into existence. It was also, literally in most cases, an instrument of the church.

Sunday brought the inauguration of a new Ruffatti organ in the chapel of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, although in the world of organ-building, “new” is a description that usually has to be qualified. Gerard Gillen, NUI Maynooth’s emeritus professor of music, a man whose devotion to the organ remains unflagging in his early 70s, provided the background information in the printed programme.

The original Maynooth organ was built following the most modern principles by the German firm of Georg Stahlhuth in 1890. It included an early version of electro-pneumatic action (the connection between the keyboard and the actual pipes was implemented by electrically controlled wind pressure), which allowed the playing console to be well removed from the pipes. As Gillen says, “This distance between player and instrument was an astonishing technological achievement for its time, although from the start it was hardly an arrangement likely to lead to the best musical results, either in accompaniment or in solo playing.”

The Stahlhuth instrument lasted just four decades. Organs are prone to be updated either through changing needs, changing fashions, or both. In 1928 and 1929, the instrument was enlarged by Henry Willis & Sons, in a rebuild that Gillen says “gave the instrument a romantic Anglo-French accent”.

Half a century elapsed before, in the mid-1970s, Bray company Kenneth Jones & Associates brought the instrument, says Gillen, “into line with contemporary classical principles of organ design”. Organists and organ-recital programmes had turned away from romantic repertoire and were showing an interest in the music of the 17th and 18th centuries, and Jones’s rebuild reflected this. He also moved the console from the ground floor to the gallery.

By the end of the 20th century, wear and tear created the opportunity for another rethink. This time it was decided to “restore the organ to its original romantic character, but with an enlarged palette of colours, and in the process to make the primary action of the instrument mechanical as opposed to electro-pneumatic as heretofore”. The task was given to an Italian firm, Fratelli Ruffatti of Padova.

If you think organs are still a matter of traditional craftsmanship only, think again. Carbon fibre has been used “for connections between keyboards and the internal mechanisms activating the pipes”, with a beneficial reduction of weight and friction. The keyboards have optical sensors. This means that, not only can they be coupled together without the player having to expend extra physical effort, but there are record and playback functions and Midi connections. Stop combinations can also be stored digitally.

Given the austerity aspects of the historical-performance movement – playing the cello without an endpin, the violin without a shoulder pad, grappling with the limitations of the pianos of Mozart’s and Beethoven’s day, not to mention the challenges of valveless trumpets and horns – the organ stands gloriously apart.

The purist ideology does exist, of course. Neo-baroque once ruled the roost, both for new instruments and rebuilds. The fact that the instruments are so expensive and are built to last for centuries almost guarantees they will be periodically recycled and morphed into new musical personalities.

So what of the personality of the new Ruffatti, as revealed by Olivier Latry, organist of Notre-Dame de Paris on Sunday? His recital opened with Bach (the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV565) and then focused on French music (Franck, Guilmant, Vierne, Widor, Alain, Dupré) before rounding off with an improvisation that was exciting and to the point.

The instrument is both suave and full, romantically luxuriant, and, in Latry’s hands, always finely balanced, never strained. Its bite is crisp without being razor-sharp, its lower end powerful and well focused. I especially liked some of the lilting shapes in Franck’s Prélude, fugue et variation , where the expressive contouring was always spot on.

The instrument will be put through its paces again over the next three Sundays by James O’Donnell of Westminster Abbey, John O’Keeffe of NUI Maynooth, and Gerard Gillen.

Danish delicacy
String quartets in the main auditorium of the National Concert Hall have been something of a rarity, but the hall’s chief executive, Simon Taylor, has been bravely bringing them back, and on Tuesday welcomed the Danish String Quartet as part of the Great Artists Series.

The programme framed one of fellow Dane Carl Nielsen’s quartets (No 3 in E flat, Op 14) with Haydn (the fifth of the Sun Quartets Op 20) and Beethoven (the late Quartet in C sharp minor, Op 131). There is a lot to like in the group’s playing. They are lithe and energetic, performing Haydn with clear tone, and taking an unflinching route through the contrapuntally rich Nielsen, although without always managing to keep the musical argument clear.

They moved into more elevated mode for the Beethoven, where the slower music seemed to suit their style more than the faster movements. And then, in a couple of encores of Danish folk-song arrangements, they transformed themselves into sonic magicians, weaving sounds of a ravishing delicacy. Simply wonderful.

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