To mark the 750th
anniversary of the foundation of the college
in 1264 and as part of the veritable explosion of musical activity there in
the last few years Merton College has installed a splendid and substantial
new organ in the college chapel. The three-manual instrument was built by
the American company, Dobson Pipe Organ Builders of Lake City, Iowa. This is
organ built by the firm since it was founded in 1974 and
it’s the first of their instruments to be installed outside the USA.
Furthermore, I think I’m right in saying that it’s only the third American
organ installed in Britain since the Second World War.
This three-manual, 44-stop organ, which has nearly 3,000 pipes, took some
five years to construct and it replaces a very much smaller 1968 Walker
organ. I saw and heard the instrument for the first time at the beginning of
April when I attended a concert in the chapel (review
). It has a substantial casing, made of American white
oak, which looks very handsome indeed. On that occasion I thought the organ
sounded very well indeed but I was only able to hear it in a number of short
pieces either taken from or inspired by Bach’s Orgelbüchlein.
first impression was very favourable but I expressed the view then I’d like
to hear the new Merton organ in a wider range of music, not least in some
French repertoire. Now, thanks to Delphian, those wishes have been granted
for here we have the debut recording of the organ in a programme that has a
generous whiff of Gallic air to it.
The selection of pieces has been shrewdly judged to show off the organ in
various ways and within the programme the ordering of pieces effects some
interesting contrasts. It’s no surprise, perhaps, that Bach gets the
proceedings under way since any self-respecting organ needs to be capable of
doing justice to the music that is the cornerstone of the organ repertoire.
But you could say that it’s Monsieur
Bach who sets us off on our
exploration of the Merton organ for the two opening pieces are arrangements
by distinguished French organists of music by Johann Sebastian. Dupré’s
arrangement of the Sinfonia from Cantata 29 strikes me as a well-nigh
perfect way to introduce the instrument. We hear thrilling deep pedal notes,
sparkling reeds and exciting passagework: the Dobson organ has announced
itself in fine style. Duruflé’s fluent, gentler Bach arrangement then
affords an excellent contrast. I may be wrong but I think perhaps the Vox
Humana stop on the Swell Organ is used to voice the melody. Whichever stop
is used the effect is attractive.
Bach speaks with his own voice in the Toccata and Fugue in D minor. The
piece gives the organ a vigorous workout from which it emerges with flying
colours. The music – and the performance of it by Benjamin Nicholas – mixes
grandeur and athleticism. This performance certainly establishes the Bachian
credentials of the new instrument.
Franck’s Pièce héroïque
would not be a Desert Island choice for
me but it’s sensible to include it in this programme since it calls for a
rich palette of colours. Nicholas employs some discerning registrations to
bring out the best in the organ and he makes good use of the opportunities
for contrast that Franck has written into the piece. The ending is grand and
full-voiced. The little Stanley voluntary that follows is like a
palate-cleansing sorbet after Franck’s rich pudding. Michael Emery tells us
in his notes that a Cornet stop is used to voice the main melody. When this
occurs (from 1:54) the perkiness of both the melody and the sound should
make listeners smile.
I like the bright and lively composition by Jean Langlais and Benjamin
Nicholas gives a performance which is equally bright and lively. The Dupré
piece that follows is much more serious in demeanour, as its title suggests.
Nicholas judges expertly the variety of colours in his performance. He also
builds the music most impressively to its towering conclusion. Earlier we’ve
heard a piece by Dupré’s most celebrated pupil, Olivier Messiaen. Prière
après la Communion
is typical of its composer in meditative mood. When
one hears the long, quiet sustained chords that permeate the piece one can
almost envisage the effect of sunlight in a church nave, refracted through
stained glass and piercing through wisps of incense smoke. Nicholas voices
most imaginatively the little shafts of melody that cut through the
It was a good idea to bring the recital to an end with two highly
contrasting pieces by Vierne. Clair de lune
is a lovely, lush
nocturne. The main melodic idea is heard primarily on the Harmonic Flute
stop of the Great Organ, Michael Emery says, and it’s a shrewd stop
selection for the sound of the melody is very winning. Carillon de
is an organ showstopper, and rightly so. It’s an excellent
choice as the last offering in this programme. Nicholas gives a colourful,
exciting account of it and the conclusion is magisterial and magnificent.
Incidentally, at the very end you can just hear, through the sonorous full
organ chords, a tinkling sound. This, Michael Emery tells us, is achieved
through the use of the Zimbelstern, ‘a real carillon of tiny bells connected
to a rotating star at the top of the organ case.’ I shouldn’t think there
will be too many opportunities to use this feature but, as they say, ‘if
you’ve got it, flaunt it’; and why not showcase every last aspect of this
organ in its debut recital?
Benjamin Nicholas is known primarily, at least on disc, as an excellent
choral conductor but he’s clearly an adept organist too and I enjoyed this
varied recital very much. The Merton College chapel has been the venue for
many fine recordings down the years, primarily Tallis Scholars recordings on
the Gimell label and, more recently, Delphian recordings of the Merton
choir. This, I fancy, is perhaps the biggest sound that engineers have been
called upon to capture in this acoustic. It seems to me that Paul Baxter has
done an absolutely first class job. The quiet passages, when Nicholas
produces sensitive registrations, come across beautifully and when he gives
the instrument its head and unleashes its full-throated splendour the sound
is reported in a thrilling fashion. Above all, I like two things: firstly,
the clarity with which the organ can be heard, even when the fullest
registrations are deployed; and, secondly, the way in which the instrument
is reported within the acoustic of the chapel.
The booklet includes a full specification of the organ and a note about
the instrument by John A. Penning of Dobson Pipe Organs. There’s also a very
good essay by Michael Emery, a former Organ Scholar of Merton College. I
wonder if he has the odd pang of regret that this fine instrument was not
during his time at the college.
The new Dobson organ is a splendid addition to Merton College Chapel.
It makes a most auspicious debut on disc here and I hope there will
be many more opportunities to hear it in the future. Congratulations
are due to the builders in their fortieth anniversary year. It was clearly
an important commission for them and Iowa’s first-ever ‘organ export’
was understandably a source of no little local pride, as you can read