Nathan Laube's organ recital at King's College Chapel
By John Gilroy
The average concert-goer enjoys occasional organ recitals, but one doesn't see many reviews of them, which is strange given such a vast and outstanding repertoire for organ together with the role it plays in the daily demands of the liturgical year. The sounds emanating from that great phalanx of inscrutable and unmoving pipes are being created by someone, somewhere, not only displaying the keyboard virtuosity of the concert pianist but also producing an identical ability with the feet, and all at the same time. It's no wonder that the celebrated organists of the world, such as the titulaires of the great Parisian churches like Notre Dame and St Sulpice, have followers who treat them like rock stars, waiting for their descent from that holy of holies the organ loft for a greeting or an autograph. The musician and comic artist Gerard Hoffnung humorously depicts the typical organist in 'molto allegro' who glances into his rear-view mirror and sees a police car in full chase. My old 60s copy of Bluff your way in Music has a special section devoted to these extraordinary performers describing them as a special breed and concluding, 'don't mess with organists'.
Cambridge is well endowed with church and college chapel organs and well supplied with people who play them. This year perhaps one of the city's most celebrated instruments, the early seventeenth century organ in the chapel of King's College, has been undergoing its first restoration in decades. The process which was begun in January and completed in September has taken exactly nine months to produce the bright and reliable mechanism we heard on Tuesday evening.
King's has provided a running website commentary on the progress of the restoration from the first dis-assembling of the pipes (sent up to Durham to the organ builder and restorer, Harrison & Harrison), through the cleaning of the centuries-old case, to the reassembling process. Among the many photographs has been an inside look at the motor system which electronically powers the wind (once a tiresome job for one or more people treading on bellows), and the gold-leaf gilding of the façade pipes which give such beauty to the organ's appearance as it centrally spans the chapel's nave. The videos have been fascinating, especially those of one of Harrisons' technicians doing the voicing from a remote single keyboard state-of-the-art console and also illustrating how thin and reedy an organ is, even the one at King's, before each of the hundreds of pipes is voiced and tuned to make the sound we all recognise as coming from the 'king of Instruments.'
So it was especially appropriate that the first public recital on the newly restored organ should be at the hands (and feet) of American concert organist Nathan Laube, one of the world's young top-flight virtuosos. The programme seems to have been chosen for a number of reasons; first of all to appeal essentially to organ cognoscenti (I overheard one gentleman in conversation say that he'd turned the pages on 3 separate occasions for George Thalben-Ball, one of the most famous organists of the twentieth century), secondly to demonstrate what the King's organ is actually capable of doing with the diversity of demands made upon it, and finally also to pay tribute in some ways to English connections such as Healey Willan, a name not exactly on most people's lips but an organist and composer celebrated enough in the last century, and Herbert Howells for his King's College associations.
Needless to say, the fluency of Nathan Laube's musicianship was truly amazing. Willan's Passacaglia and Fugue immediately announced both the talent of the performer and highlighted the quality of the sound we were listening to. The fugue, full of cascading notes, built to a terrific climax of the kind which can occasionally transform the organ into a frightening instrument. The first one of 3 Rhapsodies composed by Herbert Howells followed on. This work was dedicated to Harold Darke who stood in for Boris Ord when the organist and choirmaster of King's was serving in the armed forces in World War 2. The Pastorale by Jean-Roger Ducasse brought the first part of the recital to a conclusion. The gently rocking introductory movements developed into a powerful passage with some extraordinary pedalling intervals.
After a brief pause the recital continued with Phantasia und Fugue über den Choral 'Ad nos, ad salutarem undam' by Liszt. We usually associate this composer's output with fiendishly difficult piano literature, but Liszt did compose for organ and 'Ad nos' is one of two undoubtedly important works from among those in this genre. Again, it seems to have been chosen to showcase the brilliance of the renovated organ, but in so doing it equally revealed the astonishing talent of the organist upon whom it places an unrelenting obligation to do justice to its difficulties and simply stay the course for what amounts to almost half an hour.
With this concert Nathan Laube got the current King's organ recital series off to an impressive start. But not only this. He inaugurated a new era in the history of organ music at King's on a superbly restored instrument which will no doubt continue to thrill and inspire for generations to come.