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Did Ralph Downes Die A Disappointed Man?

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Apart from America, no other country seems to have remained quite so insular to the effects of the movement for "organ reform" than the UK, where organs deriving from the classical tradition are still few and far between.

 

Perhaps the Harrison & Harrison organ of the Royal Festival Hall was as much a curse as it was a blessing, and being very much the experimental pet-project of one man, Ralph Downes, is this the reason why so few instruments have been built which go even further, by reflecting a more exact recreation of classical style?

 

With the tide very slowly shifting back towards a sort of "Franglais," hybrid style of instrument, was the classical organ philosophy ever more than a pipedream, reserved only for a few home experiements on the one hand, and a relatively large number of imported organs in our colleges and universities on the other?

 

In fact, was the lesson of the "orgelbewebung" and what it represented, ever given a proper chance, or was it merely an annoying diversion in the musical life of the nation?

 

MM

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Very briefly and simply, I think the "orgelbewebung" did do a great deal of good for organ building in this country. It helped re-establish the advantage of a mechnical action organ, in a well designed and disciplined instrument. In turn, it helped to re-establish the need for high quality craftsmanship and led the way for us to better appreciate and understand our organs of the past. years. I think in the 1950s or 60s, it would have been rarer to appreciate a small Victorian Hill, G&D or Walker but now, with the tenants of mechanical action, logical design, good chorus structure and a degree of discipline in the back of our minds, we now appreciate them for what they are, rather than as a source of parts for our meglomanic dreams.

 

It also helped turn the organ from an item on technical innovation and marvel back into a musical instrument. One now takes it for granted that the key action will be light enough and responsive, it will be well designed for easy maintenance and it won't be trying to show off with mechnical ingenuity as its first aim. So now we focus on the musical aspects of the organ much more.

 

There may be many reasons why the organs haven't been that successful tonally. There is no need for high mixtures in our small and intimate parish churches and the voicing of the foundation stops didn't really encourage smooth blend in our unforgiving acoustics. Interesting though many of the experiments were, the tonal aspects of these organs were revoluationary and frequently studiously avoided any reference to tonal developments in this country in preference for assumptions about the tonal make-up of organs designed for very different requirements in very different buildings.

 

While it was a big mistake tonally, I think that the influence of the orgelbewebung has taught us important lessons. In the hands of less musical builders, the organ had become stereotyped into this thick and dull sound. We are still reaping the benefits of mechnical action and tidy design, the view of the organ building industry as a craft industry and I think the evagelising zeal helped inject some interest in the organ as it re-invented itself.

 

In some enlightened areas we have thrown out the much re-built, electrocuted and unhappy organs in many of our parish churches for something much more disciplined, asthetically much more attractive and a much better proposition long-term. But I think we've still got a long way to go. We still need to throw off the last shackles of the organ reform before we can start to build really successful organs tonally while remembering the important lessons it taught us in other areas. I occasionally worry that organbuilding is beginning to stagnate again - privately, I feel there's not much creativity and originality out there right now but for a few pockets.

 

Did it teach us the lessons Ralph Downes wanted us to learn? Did he really know what lessons he wanted us to learn?

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... There may be many reasons why the organs haven't been that successful tonally. There is no need for high mixtures in our small and intimate parish churches and the voicing of the foundation stops didn't really encourage smooth blend in our unforgiving acoustics. Interesting though many of the experiments were, the tonal aspects of these organs were revoluationary and frequently studiously avoided any reference to tonal developments in this country in preference for assumptions about the tonal make-up of organs designed for very different requirements in very different buildings. ...

 

Did it teach us the lessons Ralph Downes wanted us to learn? Did he really know what lessons he wanted us to learn?

 

I am not sure that he did. I am sure that he meant well; he had a burning desire to get the entrenched British organ world away from the often dull and unsympathetic playing - and from the quasi-orchestral style of instrument which had become virtually endemic.

 

However, whilst he learnt much and travelled as widely as he was able, I think that he missed some valuable lessons. He also made some surprising errors and failed to allow for the effect of the acoustic environment in large churches, for example. This led directly to what I see as a serious mis-calculation at the RFH. Whilst French reeds sound wonderful in a large, resonant building (which has the effect of broadening the tone), even I would admit that they are rather less successful in the sterile acoustic of the auditorium of the RFH.

 

More later - teaching.

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I have been struggling to thnik of a Downes instrument with mechanical action, and failing; the three I know personally (RFH, Gloucester and Buckfast) are all EP and often as revolutionary in their soundboard design as in tonal matters - the muiltiple pallets at Gloucester, for instance, and (I believe I'm right in saying) the Pitman chests at Buckfast.

 

I'm not quite sure that the organ reform movement didn't have some steam of its own without Downes. What we might now regard as the most influential and important instruments of this time - I instantly think of Queens College Oxford and New College Oxford - were both without Downes involvement, and actually seem to have little or none of his influence whatsoever. If Peter Hurford was recording in Australia and Germany then these influences were going to reach us sooner or later. I'm not really sure that the course of organ building would have taken a different turn without the RFH or Gloucester; I think the important work he did was in shaping attitudes and understanding, and the practical examples of influential work (certainly in chorus structure) came from elsewhere, and were based on old models rather than on innovation and theory.

 

The view could be taken, I suppose, that Downes was experimenting with other people's money. Organ builders' tales of working with him generally paint a picture of a man who thought he was working without compromise but was probably working, at times, without common sense. I heard all about the mounted cornet on one particular instrument, which had some speech problems; the organ builder suggested small bleed holes in the mounted chest to overcome these, but this was completly beyond the pale to Downes who proceeded to use several days' labour woking with voicers to try and get these pipes to speak. Eventually, in frustration, one of the voicers drilled a bleed hole in the chest and tried a note. "Perfect!" declared Mr Downes. There are also countless stories about how people have had to go back through the job when he wasn't looking. What's often overlooked in this though is who he was working with - Harrison, HNB and Walker, in the examples above - not Kuhn, Klais and Marcussen. (If you want the real reason people go abroad, think of customer service; I recently spoke to someone who has been in charge of commissioning a new instrument, whose experience of the "big" UK firms was extremely poor, and I have recently had a disappointing encounter with one of the larger ones too.) I don't know whether "keeping it in the country" was a principle or just a convenience, and I suppose in a way it's interesting that some of the organ builders took themselves off to learn and read in order to most successfully apply the sometimes flawed principles they were required to work with.

 

It's a shame Downes has this notoriety for designing instruments and nothing else, because he has been a very influential organ teacher and patron to many of our greatest players, Gillian Weir among them. His achievements as a player and teacher (an area where, it could be argued, an even greater shake-up was needed than among the builders) seem to attract mostly positive comments (I''ve never knowingly seen anything to the contrary, anyway) so it seems a shame that even he himself didn't seem to see these achievements as being his greatest ones.

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I have been struggling to thnik of a Downes instrument with mechanical action, and failing ...

 

Think of Saint David's, Hall, Cardiff, David....

 

:rolleyes:

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D'OH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

I've seen that one, too....

 

What is it like? I have heard mixed reports.

 

Incidentally, the action of the organ at Gloucester Cathedral is not electro-pneumatic, it is electro-magnetic. I suppose that it could be a form of direct electric, but I cannot recall the exact description and, irritatingly, the authorities at this school have not yet seen the great benefit in purchasing a wide variety of organ-related reference books.... :rolleyes: However, there is definitely no wind in the action.

 

I do agree with you, though. When I consider the matter, I wonder if MM is really correct in his statement regarding "the UK, where organs deriving from the classical tradition are still few and far between." There are two volumes of The Classical Organ in Britain - which have been updated, I believe. These are not exhaustive lists. Perhaps it would help if MM could explain what he means by the British classical organ - if he refers to instruments which have mechanincal action, simple choruses and un-fussy reeds (such as the type of instrument, in the construction of which William Drake is a specialist) then I see advertisements for instruments apparently of this type frequently. I do feel that it would help to clarify matters if MM could define exactly the type of instrument he has in mind.

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What is it like? I have heard mixed reports.

 

Perhaps it would help if MM could explain what he means by the British classical organ - if he refers to instruments which have mechanincal action, simple choruses and un-fussy reeds (such as the type of instrument, in the construction of which William Drake is a specialist) then I see advertisements for instruments apparently of this type frequently. I do feel that it would help to clarify matters if MM could define exactly the typ of instrument he has in mind.

 

Point one - no comment. I wonder if it is mere co-incidence that, as far as I know, only one major instrument in the UK by Mr Collins (Mancroft) has not been substantially re-built by others.

 

Point two - I don't really keep up with what people mean by "classical" or "baroque", and what justifies the insertion of "neo" before either of these terms. It's a shame JPM so seldom contributes here, as he has been extremely vociferous on the Orgue-l list just lately.

 

I go along with MM's assessment that we are, to a large extent, still drifting around in a sea of eclecticism save for a few who have banged their stake in the ground. My growing belief is that conviction is more important than any particular style in this; as many know, I am a part-time employee of the Drake firm and have had my perceptions altered severely in recent months. To me, growing up with regular visits to the workshop as a teenager (having family in Buckfastleigh), a Drake organ has always been synonymous with GG compasses, trigger swells, a disdain for electric lighting (and, on occasion, blowing), Stopt Diapafons of waynscott and a penny of ye ale for ye men etc etc. To now be seeing Drake instruments such as Greyfriars (Oxford), St John's Bridgetown, St Mary's Totnes, Stogursey, St Anne's Limehouse and others - instruments containing colours ranging from 16' Dulzians and Scharfzimbels on the one hand to Voix Celestes and Open Woods on the other - has shown me first-hand that style is about more than lip-service and nomenclature but is an aesthetic which goes right through the instrument, even to the style of faceboard screws and the shape of backfalls. When a builder has this absolute conviction and is completely immersed in and sympathetic with all aspects of a style of organ, it shows. It seems to me that it is this belief, acceptance and understanding which is missing not so much in our builders as in our specifiers, designers and players, many of whom continue to draw up specifications for organs which will play Howells, Messiaen, de Grigny and Bach equally well, and will be replete with 99999 levels of memory, a sequencer, stepper and Teasmade; all of which is fine up to a point, but what you don't get often is an instrument of individual character and conviction. (Which is also fine, in its place; Marlborough College, for instance, is a perfect example of an extremely fine instrument which will do everything well enough to enthuse youngsters and give them a taste of what's out there - the perfect organ for a school, with just enough character to be individual in Bach without being distracting in Howells.)

 

Perhaps the continuing love affair with continental builders is in some way perpetrated by many, but particularly UK, builders having become in some ways more craft-orientated and specialised, putting music above business and not being prepared to create 'prostitute instruments' which will be all things to all men - but this doesn't always suit the customer, does it? For my money, I'd rather have a musical instrument with an ounce of conviction (Aubertin and Robert Shaftoe are two other names which spring immediately to mind) and accept that it's going to do some things better than others. M. pcnd and I occasionally have spats about accompanying choral evensong at St Mary the Virgin, Oxford. My belief remains that you can get the notes down, and they make an extremely musical sound, and the lack of strings and enclosure is a small price to pay for the ability to play some important music in glorious technicolour. (I could happily draw the HW Principal 8, stick a pencil under middle C and wander around the building listening to it all day.) The same argument about music applies (to other parts of the repertoire) with, say, Grosvenor Chapel, Romsey Abbey, Gloucester. Maybe that's the real lesson of the 'orgelbewegung'? A clever tuner knows that to tune the organist is more important than to tune the organ; perhaps that was Downes' aim too.

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... M. pcnd and I occasionally have spats about accompanying choral evensong at St Mary the Virgin, Oxford. My belief remains that you can get the notes down, and they make an extremely musical sound, and the lack of strings and enclosure is a small price to pay for the ability to play some important music in glorious technicolour. (I could happily draw the HW Principal 8, stick a pencil under middle C and wander around the building listening to it all day.) The same argument about music applies (to other parts of the repertoire) with, say, Grosvenor Chapel, Romsey Abbey, Gloucester. Maybe that's the real lesson of the 'orgelbewebung'? A clever tuner knows that to tune the organist is more important than to tune the organ; perhaps that was Downes' aim too.

 

I agree with much that you say, David. I further think that it is interesting that we can agree on so many points - and so many instruments - yet disagree about one or two others. However, I would not wish other board members to gain the impression that my choral accompaniments are Céleste-ridden, with the swell shutters waving merrily in the breeze. For the record, I would need at

least four pencils wedging notes on the HW Principal 8ft. - and I could probably only wander round listening to it for about six minutes before wanting to listen to another sound or two....

 

You have yet to settle on a date to carry-out your kind offer of a trip to Oxford, at which point, I hope to be able to agree with you regarding the organ in the University Church.

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You have yet to settle on a date to carry-out your kind offer of a trip to Oxford, at which point, I hope to be able to agree with you regarding the organ in the University Church.

 

Yes - trip to Aubertin's workshop is in a couple of weeks, after which I should know more about an installation date and we can get cracking. (Any others - NJA - know of the current state of play?)

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Point one - no comment. I wonder if it is mere co-incidence that, as far as I know, only one major instrument in the UK by Mr Collins (Mancroft) has not been substantially re-built by others.

 

Where does the Turner Sims bag of whistles sit on the scale of major instruments by Collins? it had the console modernised a while back, but I didn't think much else got done?

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Where does the Turner Sims bag of whistles sit on the scale of major instruments by Collins? it had the console modernised a while back, but I didn't think much else got done?

 

Or the large Greyfriars job in Edinburgh (with the 32ft Rumble), Oakham school chapel or St Oswald's Durham?

PJW

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT
Yes - trip to Aubertin's workshop is in a couple of weeks, after which I should know more about an installation date and we can get cracking. (Any others - NJA - know of the current state of play?)

 

:rolleyes: x 3 !

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During his lifetime, Lawrence (Larry) Phelps made the observation that the work of Ralph Downes came almost to nothing, but I'm not sure that I could agree with this. This is what really prompted the question.

 

I will have to collect my thoughts a little, because it is quite a complicated matter.

 

My only early observation would be that the RFH organ was designed as an eclectic instrument from the outset, and it was really only when that simply gorgeous Frobenius arrived at Queen's College, Oxford, that the true "orgelbewebung" was heard properly for the first time in the UK.

 

As I have just returned from a lengthy journey, I don't feel inspired to write very much at the moment, but I wonder if anyone actually knows if Ralph Downes felt a sense of disappointment at the reaction to his work?

 

More later.

 

MM

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As I have just returned from a lengthy journey, I don't feel inspired to write very much at the moment, but I wonder if anyone actually knows if Ralph Downes felt a sense of disappointment at the reaction to his work?

 

More later.

 

MM

 

Not as far as Gloucester was concerned. He was thrilled with it - and certain that he had produced a superb instrument in every way.

 

He was kind enough to agree to help me with some research when I was writing my degree thesis. The organ of Gloucester Cathedral featured in one or two chapters and I needed information which I had been unable to find in The Organ, the booklet issued by the cathedral or any other source.

 

I met him at the RFH after one of the 'Wednesdays at 5.55' recitals (I think that the artist might have been Jonathan Rennert). I found Ralph Downes to be very kind, down-to-earth and most generous with his knowledge.

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Guest Cynic
Not as far as Gloucester was concerned. He was thrilled with it - and certain that he had produced a superb instrument in every way*.

 

He was kind enough to agree to help me with some research when I was writing my degree thesis. THe organ of Gloucester Cathedral featured in one or two chapters and I needed information which I had been unable to find in The Organ, the booklet issued by the cathedral or any other source.

 

I met him at the RFH after one of the 'Wednesdays at 5.55' recitals (I think that the artist might have been Jonathan Rennert). I found Ralph Downes to be very kind, down-to-earth and most generous with his knowledge.

 

 

* You/he seem to have omitted from this account (what I was lead to understand were) three subsequent court cases concerning the Gloucester organ. I gather that the cathedral sued both Downes and HN&B, and in turn Downes sued HN&B. In all cases, the claim was that they had not followed specific instructions. Sorry and all, but for the sake of completeness......!

 

The answer to this topic's question is 'probably not'. I keep urging people to buy the book 'Baroque Tricks', subtitled 'Adventures with the organ builders' which is published by Positif Press. It is a very good (and informative) read indeed. Downes is pretty upbeat about most things - rather curiously he missed out some of his organs altogether. He is very illuminating about his search for perfection and occasionally downright funny (albeit almost certainly this is unintentional).

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Very briefly and simply, I think the "orgelbewebung" did do a great deal of good for organ building

 

I agree with everything you say, but the word is Orgelbewegung (lit. organ movement). Bewebung suggests something to do with looms and weaving.

 

JS

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I agree with everything you say, but the word is Orgelbewegung (lit. organ movement). Bewebung suggests something to do with looms and weaving.

 

JS

 

 

=======================

 

 

Aye tha's reight an all.....trust a Tyke ta mess up t'German words more than 'e does th'English ones. It's those yon bits o' wool we stuff in us ears to keep draft out.

 

MM

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The reason behind asking if Ralph Downes died a dissapointed man, largley came about because, as I recently discovered when digging about for the American connections with the Schnitger organs of the "Altes Lande," and some of the names associated with the organ-reform movement in America, Ralph Downes knew Carl Weinrich.

 

I had known about his friendship with G.Donald Harrison, and of their collaboration with a design for a new organ at Buckfast Abbey (1939), at which very early date, there would have been an interesting and possibly very worthy pre-cursor to the organ of the Royal Festival Hall, London.

 

Now I hope I have no misread the situation, but it seems to me that Ralph Downes was the English offshoot of that Carl Weinrich/G.Donald Harrison/Gottfried Silbermann "movement" in America, which ultimatey gave rise to the "American Classic," but which ultimately was pushed into the sidings be a completely new direction in American organ-building: perhaps directly linked to the Schnitger organs such as that at Steinkirchen in Germany.

 

Some people in America, including his own son, would say that G.Donald Harrison died at the right moment; having achieved a great deal, but only ever really creating an elcectic, hybrid style of instrument, rather than 20th century re-creations of the style so favoured by Carl Weinrich....the Silbermann organs.

 

I was horrified to discover that Ralph Downes, whilst at Princeton University in America, took upon himself the task of re-modelling an Ernest Skiner organ into something much more classical; to the extent that a number of ranks were either badly stored, or just strewn around under the swell boxes (etc) with disaterous consequences. Although Ralph Downes claimed to have reversed all the tonal-changes he personally made, it seems that the instrument had been used as some sort of recreational "test bed" hobby.

 

The organ was later re-built, and much of the original pipework re-instated, by our hosts; Mander Organs.

 

So far from being the man who introduced "classical revival" into English organ-building, Ralph Downes was really the man who set out to create the eclectic "English Classic."

 

With that in mind, I would never uphold the organ of the Royal Festival Hall as a shining model of "classical revival," but it nevertheless had a remarkable impact on a whole generation of organists and organ-builders.

Equally, it leaves me a little perplexed at what the late "Larry" Phelps had to say, when he suggested that few had followed, in a progenic way, that particular instrument, and that "classical revival" had not made much of an impact in the UK.

 

It's when one looks at organs such as St.Alban's, Fairfield Hall, Sheffield Cathedral, Blackburn Cathedral, Liverpool RC cathedral and other notable examples such as Leeds Town Hall, that it is possible to see not so much "baroque revival" so much as "English eclecticism." Surely, is that not a direct result of what it was that Ralph Downes set out to do?

 

It therefore comes as no surprise to know that Ralph Downes was well pleased with the result at Gloucester, which really marks the ultimate expression of "English eclecticism," alongside the organs by Walker at Liverpool and Blackburn.

 

Perhaps a less flattering legacy also followed Ralph Downes, with the notion that all baroque organs were somehow "roughly" voiced, and one hears tell of organ-builders in the UK suggesting that "this is how organists like them these days."

 

This possibly stemmed from the false belief that any self-respecting "baroque" instrument would never have included pipe-nicking, and it was Ralph Downes himself who advised at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, when Flentrop had to rub-out all the nicks so as to conform to this mythical proposition.

 

Is it any wonder that it fell to others to create the true "neo-baroque" organ in the UK?

 

I'm very fortunate that I play one of the better neo-baroque organs made in the UK, but is it any wonder that so many neo-baroque organs gave the English equivalent to the "orgelbeweGung" (not the 'G' John!) a bad name?

 

Perhaps with so many cloth ears going the round in the 1960's and 70's, perhaps "OrgelbeweBung" might be a better description.

 

 

MM

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It therefore comes as no surprise to know that Ralph Downes was well pleased with the result at Gloucester, which really marks the ultimate expression of "English eclecticism," alongside the organs by Walker at Liverpool and Blackburn.
More so than St George's, Windsor? That really has a bit of everything: French shallots to the Swell reeds and Solo Clarion (plus a French Plein Jeu Mixture on the Swell - or at least it used to be); English Shallots for the Great reeds and Solo Trumpet, a spitting Baroque Positiv and a rather English Baroque Chaire, mounted Cornet on the Gt (albeit a fairly horrible one). It really can play everything with some semblance of conviction - except possibly Italian elevation toccatas.

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No one so far has mentioned the London Oratory as far as I can see. I have a fairly recent recording of everything from Dandrieu to Langlais via Bach and Widor - the whole gamut sounds amazing - all played there with great taste by Patrick Russill. Certainly with 'out and out Downes' characteristics (it was after all his home patch) perhaps this could be said to be the most 'Downes' of the lot. And in a rather nice acoustic too. English eclecticism though? - I'm not sure.

 

AJJ

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More so than St George's, Windsor?

 

 

============================

 

 

Not at all, because that is one of the finest examples of the genre.

 

I'm afraid there were too many to list, but Windsor shouldn't have fallen through the net, considering the good things I have said about it.

 

MM

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* You/he seem to have omitted from this account (what I was lead to understand were) three subsequent court cases concerning the Gloucester organ. I gather that the cathedral sued both Downes and HN&B, and in turn Downes sued HN&B. In all cases, the claim was that they had not followed specific instructions. Sorry and all, but for the sake of completeness......!

 

Yes - the omission was deliberate. I was aware of them, but the question was whether or not Downes was happy with the Gloucester organ (not whether the cathedral was happy with it) - the answer is still 'yes'! I think that in his own mind, Ralph Downes was satisfied that the cathedral had been presented with an instrument that was far more musical and better equipped to fulfil its rôle in the changing world than had been the case of the previous instrument. This is not a comment on the previous instrument - simply the impression I gained from talking to Downes.

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No one so far has mentioned the London Oratory as far as I can see. I have a fairly recent recording of everything from Dandrieu to Langlais via Bach and Widor - the whole gamut sounds amazing - all played there with great taste by Patrick Russill. Certainly with 'out and out Downes' characteristics (it was after all his home patch) perhaps this could be said to be the most 'Downes' of the lot. And in a rather nice acoustic too. English eclecticism though? - I'm not sure.

 

AJJ

 

 

======================

 

Sadly, although I lived not very far away from the Brompton Oratory for about 4 years, and then lived another 13 years elsewhere in London, I never once managed to hear the organ for myself.

 

I think, by definition, it should be an eclectic instrument, with a Swell division, but to what extent, I do not know for sure. I've never even heard a recording of it!

 

A very similar instrument was that for All Saint's, Clifton, Bristol, which makes an interesting comparison with the RC Cathedral organ by Rieger.

 

In fact, the Bristol area must be unique in having almost perfect examples of all schools, from early English to romantic; to high romantic, and eclectic classical to almost pure neo-baroque.....all within one quite small area.

 

MM

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