Pull Out All the Stops – Jennifer Bate plays the Royal Festival Hall organ – Mendelssohn, Bach, Messiaen, Franck, Duruflé

Sonata in A, Op.65/3
Prelude and Fugue in B minor, BWV544
Livre d’orgue – IV: Chants d’oiseaux
Choral No.3 in A minor
Suite, Op.5

Jennifer Bate (Royal Festival Hall organ)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 29 September, 2014
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Jennifer BateWith the Royal Festival Hall organ an acclaimed national treasure, it was fitting that the grande dame of British organists, Jennifer Bate, in a very glamorous gown, should open the Southbank Centre’s new organ-recital season. Yet I do wonder whether four full-length concerts over the next seven months to an eager but hardly capacity audience is the best way to showcase this exceptional instrument. Irritatingly, I suppose, I have fond memories of the 5.55 Wednesday slot when the organ was still new, which had the advantage of freeing up the Hall in time for a concert – although I do see how this format inevitably corralled the organ off as a specialist/minority interest (with audience figures to match).

It’s fair to say that Messiaen is the mainstay of Jennifer Bate’s career (she was his chosen performer in his later years), and to my mind it was a pity that this programme didn’t include more of his music, rather than this Baroque-to-modern-French selection. In the opening Mendelssohn (a couple of pieces published together and called a Sonata), Bate avoided an upholstered English sound in favour of a leaner tone that suited the music’s default deference to Bach, but there was enough swagger in the introductory ‘March’ to remind us of the symphonic Mendelssohn we know and love. It comes as a surprise, by the way, to discover that organ music makes up a third of Mendelssohn’s complete works.

Bate’s reading of J. S. Bach’s great B minor Prelude and Fugue was very much in baroque-monument territory, matched by massive registration in the Prelude. The Fugue’s central manual-only section could have lightened up a bit, but her deftly handled crescendo in the long stretto reasserted the organ’s formidable wall of sound. It was quite a switch from this to the naïve spiritual world of Messiaen’s joyous aviary at Easter, and for those who might take a bit of persuading, Bate was very persuasive in this celestial ‘Tweet of the Day’ omnibus.

Relaxed and meditative, she also gave us a guided tour of the organ’s impressive array of colourful stops. Bate’s recording of César Franck’s Chorales on the Beauvais Cathedral instrument is still one of the touchstone versions, but the Third, in particular, benefits from the sort of atmospheric acoustic that is not in the RFH’s remit. Bate did her best to give Franck’s pile-up of sound some purchase and faithfully reproduced some Cavaillé-Coll spit-and-polish, but this fitfully tense performance only took off in the closing pages. The final peroration, the loudest moment of the evening, didn’t have a scintilla of reverberation. In Maurice Duruflé’s Suite, apart from his Requiem this fastidious composer’s longest work, Bate worked wonders with the organ’s orchestral potential, in a rendition high on drama and virtuosity.

I was completely caught on the hop by the beauty of her encore, the short, solemn Chorale Prelude ‘The day is done, Lord Jesus stay with me’ by Johann Christian Oley, who may have been a pupil of Bach and was a contemporary of Mozart. The quality of the stop Jennifer Bate chose for the chorale tune with just a ripple of tremulant waved over its surface was haunting beyond words.

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