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The Organ of Hucking Church, Sussex, EnglandYou never know

Basil Ramsey muses on organ playing

There remains a gulf between organs, those who play them, and the general musical public. Having experienced a lifetime of a personal love-hate relationship with this most mysterious of instruments, I find myself stuck rigid on the halfway spot of indecisiveness.

Whatever criticism may be hurled at church organists, their devotion to the task of accompanying Sunday services and taking a weeknight choir rehearsal is a matter for praise, often a thankless task in difficult circumstances. Not unknown in some churches is the extreme nightmare of an unregulated organ heading for the knacker's yard, a choir of two boys and a girl, a hooty alto, bleating tenor, and two tremulous basses. A laugh? Try it.

Yet there are churches with a dedicated musician performing quiet miracles, keeping standards at a respectable level by his own mix of enthusiasm and knowledge, and using every harrowing experience as a challenge to convert weaknesses into strength.

To me, the trouble with taking the musical standards of the concert hall to meet the organ - except in the hands of some fine players worldwide - comes to pieces in the fact that organ playing is a challenging art requiring exceptional command of the instrument before any thought of musical interpretation can be considered. Its limitations in certain respects demand more of the player than any other instrument, with the possible exception of the bagpipes. (But there you sense that challenge is the name of the game.)

I heard an organ recital a fortnight ago by a fine and experienced player in touch with his packed-out cathedral equipped with a good amplification system for his commentary on the music, and a large video screen showing his handling of the programme at the console.

The whole evening slipped into the pleasure of a musical experience for these reasons: masterful technique, interpretative ability, exceptional control of the means to an end, and music of quality with a few lightweight titbits slipped in to provide relaxation.

I remember a notable French organist playing in the same cathedral several years back. He thundered into his programme with Bach's 'Wedge' Prelude and Fugue in E minor - a mighty piece of musical architecture - with no regard for the audience's generally untutored ear or the futility of serving the main course before an appetiser. The playing was generally apoplectic, so the organ's easy descent into musical banality became evident. I returned home saddened that the instrument's weaknesses had been so shamelessly exploited.

On the other hand, I have permanently stored in my mind's slim treasure trove a performance of Bach's majestic Prelude and Fugue in E flat by a continental recitalist whose playing was of superlative quality, thereby gently lifting the audience into another dimension of musical existence. Nothing can describe this when it happens, and it is best left inside us to mature and remain as a yardstick for the occasion when something else miraculously happens.

The organ is as capable of transmutation as any other instrument in the hands of an inspired performer. If your experiences of the organ have previously left you cold, persist and you may be astonished at what is possible.

Copyright © Basil Ramsey, June 5th 1999