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Mander Organs
Simon Walker

Christ Church Oxford

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I was listening to the recent BBC Radio 3 Choral evensong online, from Christ Church Oxford. I've heard this choir a couple of times during their tours to Toronto, Canada - they've made no less than 3 trips over here in the last 5 years. The choir is always excellent, and many stellar organ scholars have emerged from there (Particularly Ben Sheen who really is a tremendous player).

 

Old news to many, but I was disappointed in this broadcast once again by the organ which just doesn't have what is required to accompany settings like the Darke in F canticles, and it only proved marginally more suitable for Walton's Coronation Te Deum, where some of reeds could at least make an appearance from time to time without sounding jarring. The playing was top-notch of course - but how can they put up with an instrument without swell chorus reeds under expression for the purposes of accompanying? I would go as far as saying the organ is simply not fit for this purpose. And all of the reeds make an intrusive, thin, nasal sound and the mixtures come across as shrill on numerous recordings. That essentially leaves flues and principals only for accompanying, and the results, needless to say are very lacking in subtlety and interest, even in the hands of the best players.

 

Of all the instruments supporting daily choral foundations in the country - is the tonal design of this one the least fit for purpose? Not a comment on the quality of execution of the design, but rather one of suitability... (I know the organ at Magdalene, Oxford has come under some criticism for the kind of design that was opted for, but to my ears both it and Trinity Cambridge are more tonally suited to accompanying that CCO) All of these organs come from a time 30+ years ago when there was great interest in building classical instruments of superior quality, much more true to existing historical instrument than earlier 'neo-classical' attempts, but as a result sometimes seem very out of place and just to uncompromising. That said I'm not convinced the CCO Reiger organ really achieves highly on any level....

 

Dare I say it - In an ideal world should the CCO organ be replaced with something more suitable? It is very interesting that the tables have well and truly turned in favour of more romantic leaning instruments in choral establishments - judging by recent cathedral organ designs at Llandaff, and St Edmundsbury, Keble College Chapel Oxford etc.

 

 

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....

That said I'm not convinced the CCO Reiger organ really achieves highly on any level....

 

 

Um, sorry to do this but I can't help myself. The correct spelling of Rieger is Rieger, not Reiger. Think of Riesling! I do. Often... :)

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There is a greater question lurking behind this that concerns:

 

1) the functionality of the building for the varying degrees of congregations it hosts; and

2) the related question of the musical suitability of different spaces.

 

1) in its current form, the space is awful for large congregations. Whilst there is an excellent sense of community in the sections with collegiate layout, the sight lines are very poor, and more widely the sense of disconnection far exceeds anything else.

 

The location of the organ doesn't help, in my view, it blocking the sense of draw towards the High Altar from the west doors. It's success as an accompaniment all instrument is, in my opinion, down to the skilled and judicious deployment of its resources by the organists.

 

2) Undoubtedly, the area east of the crossing is superior for singing. Having occasionally depped both for choir services in the Victorian 'West Quire' (ie Nave) adjacent to the Rieger, and concerts performed from near the High Altar, the latter outstrips the former as a suitable space for choral music.

 

Inevitably, the building has twin roles: college chapel, diocesan cathedral. Leaving the East Quire as is, a radical clearing of the West Quire/Nave (perhaps including the organ), along with a move of the choir into the East Quire would bring about marked improvements in both 1) and 2). This would bring about the following layout options:

 

A. Small/medium 'Collegiate' Services & chamber concerts use the East Quire

B. Larger services/concerts led from either the crossing or High Altar using the West Quire & Nave: this would benefit from better acoustics and sight lines.

C. More flexible layout using the large North Transept & Nave for services/concerts of varying sizes.

Etc...

 

What one would do about the provision of organs I don't know. Perhaps an east choir organ, the Rieger being pushed west a little more as the Grand Organ?

 

It is a tricky building. These are just thoughts which would take a bold Dean & Chapter to propose and implement. The Dean is certainly bold...

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The nave is not Victorian, of course, but Norman. The main problem harks back to Cardinal Wolsey shortening it to build his grand quadrangle outside.

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Ah, I see. They've changed a bit since then, though. When I sang there, the choir stalls were nearer the crossing (and so further from the organ) than they are now. But the main problem of the building itself, now I think of it, is not just the truncated nave, but how narrow it is between the pillars.

 

Paul

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I was listening to the recent BBC Radio 3 Choral evensong online, from Christ Church Oxford. I've heard this choir a couple of times during their tours to Toronto, Canada - they've made no less than 3 trips over here in the last 5 years. The choir is always excellent, and many stellar organ scholars have emerged from there (Particularly Ben Sheen who really is a tremendous player).

 

Old news to many, but I was disappointed in this broadcast once again by the organ which just doesn't have what is required to accompany settings like the Darke in F canticles, and it only proved marginally more suitable for Walton's Coronation Te Deum, where some of reeds could at least make an appearance from time to time without sounding jarring. The playing was top-notch of course - but how can they put up with an instrument without swell chorus reeds under expression for the purposes of accompanying? I would go as far as saying the organ is simply not fit for this purpose. And all of the reeds make an intrusive, thin, nasal sound and the mixtures come across as shrill on numerous recordings. That essentially leaves flues and principals only for accompanying, and the results, needless to say are very lacking in subtlety and interest, even in the hands of the best players.

 

Of all the instruments supporting daily choral foundations in the country - is the tonal design of this one the least fit for purpose? Not a comment on the quality of execution of the design, but rather one of suitability... (I know the organ at Magdalene, Oxford has come under some criticism for the kind of design that was opted for, but to my ears both it and Trinity Cambridge are more tonally suited to accompanying that CCO) All of these organs come from a time 30+ years ago when there was great interest in building classical instruments of superior quality, much more true to existing historical instrument than earlier 'neo-classical' attempts, but as a result sometimes seem very out of place and just to uncompromising. That said I'm not convinced the CCO Reiger organ really achieves highly on any level....

 

Dare I say it - In an ideal world should the CCO organ be replaced with something more suitable? It is very interesting that the tables have well and truly turned in favour of more romantic leaning instruments in choral establishments - judging by recent cathedral organ designs at Llandaff, and St Edmundsbury, Keble College Chapel Oxford etc.

 

 

 

I can appreciate that you dislike the sound of this instrument. However, I have played it for services on many occasions for a visiting choir - and I found it to be both an exciting and versatile instrument. Whilst it may not produce familiar (and therefore 'comfortable') sounds such as 'Swell to 2ft., with 16ft. reed'*, or Swell foundations, plus Hautboy, what it does do is to make one think un-conventionally. One example was when I was accompanying Bainton's And I saw a New Heaven, on a final Sunday Evensong. I ended up with the Récit undulant (and its attendant in-tune rank), the Pedal Bourdon, and the quiet 16ft. flue on the G.O. - which I used for the right-hand solo in the last bar or two, and for the quinted 32ft. effect. The latter was obtained by my elbow, on the lowest A of the G.O. clavier. Apparently it was most effective downstairs.

 

Whilst the above is perhaps an extreme example, about the only thing I would change is to substitute an Hautbois for the Voix Humaine - assuming that there was both enough height in the box, and that the slide was wide enough to take the pipes. This was about the only register which I really missed. I found the console to be comfortable, and the mechanical action was pleasant and crisp. (Sorry, that makes it sound like bacon. If anyone can think of a more suitable word....)

 

For voluntaries: whilst it was particularly good for French Classical and German Baroque music, I found that it was versatile enough to cope quite well with a variety of other repertoire, from French symphonic to English Edwardian. However, one did have to be creative with registration - and, again, un-conventional.

 

I found the opposite problem at Saint Mary, Redcliffe. Whilst this instrument is a joy on which to accompany, I had to be extremely selective and quite un-orthodox when playing Bach. (I really don't like Kevin Bowyer's Bach recording, which he made on this instrument. Whilst his playing was immaculate - and I believe that I understood what he had set out to achieve - I simply hated the sound.) Whilst Redcliffe possesses a wealth of quieter effects of ethereal beauty, and is extremely flexible in its imaginative layout, it also has a lot of registers for which I have never found any use, due to their opaque and over-powerful voicing.

 

In the end, I suppose that it comes down to a question of personal preference. However, aside from the fact that it would be exceedingly dull if all English organs were largely the same, I cannot endorse your question of whether the organ of Christ Church, Oxford is fit for purpose.

 

 

 

* To quote Ralph Downes - who was actually referring to the rebuilt organ of Gloucester Cathedral.

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