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A Legend Reborn: The Voice of King’s
A documentary film exploring the 2016 restoration of the organ of King’s College, Cambridge
Bonus films from The English Organ, FSFDVD012:
Demonstration of the King’s Organ by Daniel Moult
Whitlock’s Fantasie Choral no. 2 played by Daniel Moult
Recital by former King’s Organ scholars on DVD and CD
FUGUE STATE FILMS FSFDVD013 DVD/CD [2 DVDs: 252 mins & 2 CDs: 109:51]

Which do you think is the most famous, or at least the most widely-heard, organ in the world? The Royal Albert Hall? Westminster Abbey? St Paul’s Cathedral? St Peter’s in Rome?

There’s a strong case to be argued that, in fact, the world’s most widely heard organ is that of King’s College, Cambridge. It is seen in households across the UK on BBC television every Christmas and, increasingly at Easter, but when you consider the vast global audience on the radio for the Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, it kind of knocks the competition into a cocked hat.

When you factor in the spectacular setting of the King’s College Chapel with its extraordinary acoustic, it makes this a globally important (and globally loved) instrument, so when you have an organ of such significance it makes sense that a huge number of people took an interest when the decision was made to rebuild it. The rebuild took place in 2016, and I reviewed a CD of the new organ when it was released in 2017, a recording that revealed it to be a triumphant success.

However, those who have a really deep interest in the instrument will want to seek out this rather lovely package from Fugue State Films. On two DVDs and two CDs, it gives us the story of the organ’s rebuild, from the first diagnosis of its problems to the completion of its restoration, together with a recital of pieces given by seven of the college’s former organ scholars.

The documentary is the central attraction, of course, and it’s a real treat. We are guided through the story by David Briggs, one of those former organ scholars, a man who knows the instrument well and who guides us through the story most effectively. However, the real stars are the staff of Harrison and Harrison, the Durham-based firm who won the contract for the rebuild. They come across as men (and they are all men) who are not only skilled craftsmen but who love their job and see their part in this great project as the fulfilment of a vocation rather than just a way to earn a living. There are some cracking characters in this cast of experts, and several lovely details come out, such as the fifth-generation organ builder who ends up working on one of the organ’s parts that his grandfather had built.

The film gives you invaluable technical details about the organ, mostly revolving around a brilliant computer-generated cross-section of the organ case that reveals all of its inner working and provides context for all the work that the builders do. During my time in Cambridge I listened to that organ many times, but watching it being revealed from within like that made me understand it in a whole new way.

We’re also given umpteen fascinating facts about the organ and the restoration that jump out of the screen. So tight was the turnaround of the rebuild, for example, that Harrison and Harrison began work preparing for it two years before the first pipe was removed. Did you know that the organ contains nearly 4,500 pipes? It gets tuned every two weeks, and while the main work was done in Durham the console was sent to specialist keyboard restorers in Suffolk.

Throughout, the film contains lots of technical stuff to keep the nerds happy, but the overall narrative is easily comprehensible for interested amateurs, and there are several beginners’ elements too, such as an introduction to how the organ’s pipes make a sound, including the role of harmonics and acoustics.

All told it’s a rather cherishable article. It gives us a once-in-a-generation insight into this wonderful instrument, and it will make you appreciate it all the more. It certainly made me think I knew the organ a lot better once I’d watched the film, and I can’t wait for my next trip to Cambridge to hear it again.

While I wait, I can enjoy the performances given here by the seven former organ scholars. Frustratingly, the dates of the performances don’t appear to be given in the packaging, but we can assume that they’re all playing the rebuilt organ, and their skill on it is as outstanding as you would expect. Each makes it sing in his own way, with a pleasingly diverse range of repertoire, and each coupling of pieces is well contrasted, demonstrating different aspects of both the instrument and its acoustic. The CDs contain the same performances as the second DVD. It’s a shame that the sound on the DVDs is in 2.0 only – it would have been interesting to hear what 5.1 sound makes of that acoustic – but it’s admirably clear nonetheless, with good bass resonance. The sound on the CDs is ever so slightly warmer to my ears, but it’s a very close run thing. Impressively, however, the filming of the performances is very interesting to watch. Organ recitals are infamously difficult to visualise, and this does the best job I’ve seen, with lots of angles ranging from overhead shots of the console through several side-on views and lots of shots of feet on the pedals.

As one more extra, there is a geektastic demonstration of the organ’s full capabilities from Daniel Moult, extracted from The English Organ, a previous Fugue State Films release. It’s more technical, but Moult is an extremely impressive guide, who takes us through the instrument’s capabilities and history, culminating in a performance of Whitlock’s Fantasie Choral that illustrates everything he had just been explaining.

In short, this release is nothing short of essential if you’re interested in organs in general or, especially, in King’s in particular. It’s a labour of love for all involved, executed with artistic flair and technical precision, just like the organ rebuild itself; and we should be very grateful that someone had the idea to turn the whole process into such a successful film. Warmly recommended.

Simon Thompson

Details of the organ recital on CDs and second DVD:
Dónal McCann:
Judith Bingham: Incarnation with Shepherds Dancing [3:46]
Marcel Dupré: Deux Esquisses: No. 2 in B-flat minor [4:14]

Henry Websdale:
Frank Bridge: Adagio in E [6:03]
Louis Vierne: Toccata from Pièces de Fantaisie [4:05]

Richard Gowers:
Jehan Alain: Deuxième Fantaisie [6:41]
Olivier Messiaen: Transports de Joie [5:34]

Tom Winpenny:
Marcel Dupré: Cortège et Litanie [6:06]
Herbert Murrill: Carillon [2:12]
Herbert Howells: Rhapsody No. 1 in D-flat [5:56]
J.S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue in G BWV 550 [6:02]

Ashley Grote:
Louis Vierne: Carillon de Westminster [7:20]
Ralph Vaughan-Williams: Prelude on Rhosymedre [3:45]

Robert Quinney:
J.S. Bach: Passacaglia and Fugue BWV582 [14:05]
Felix Mendelssohn: Prelude and Fugue in B-flat (arr. Quinney) [7:41]

David Briggs:
Max Reger: Toccata and Fugue in D minor/major [8:54]
Improvised Variations and Toccata on the Great Advent Antiphons (O Sapientia) [17:27]

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