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Winchester Cathedral Organ recorded 90 years ago

Rowland Wateridge

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This is such an unusual and rare recording that, in spite of the slightly quirky introduction and the inevitable scratching and crackling sound from a 90 years-old 78 record, I felt it deserved its own separate thread.  In particular I think it should be of interest, and perhaps something of a surprise, to Vox Humana and pcnd5584 from their experiences of Winchester Cathedral organ as quoted on earlier threads.  

Dr William Prendergast was organist of Winchester Cathedral from 1902, dying while in office in 1933.  This makes me feel decidedly ancient as I met three of Dr Prendergast's choristers, knew two of them quite well, and heard anecdotes about the great man and the organ in the early decades of the 20th century.

When Dr Prendergast arrived, the organ was wholly the Father Willis of 1851/54, restored and enlarged by the same firm in 1897/98.  That, I suspect, is the sound which we largely hear in this recording.

In 1905, Hele's of Plymouth were called in to greatly enlarge the sound, primarily to provide for nave services.  Their additions included a battery of enormously powerful diapasons on the great, a döppel flute which Tim Byram-Wigfield told me was capable of flooding the cathedral with sound, and a huge-scale 32' and 16' pedal bombarde [NPOR 11462].  I don't know whether they did anything to other reeds, but tend to think that unlikely for reasons below. Their work lasted 81 years, and with the exception of the pedal bombardes was largely discarded in the most recent and very major rebuild by H&H in 1986/88.  Incidentally, whilst the choice of Hele's might seem surprising, it was almost certainly influenced by their then recent 1904 restoration and enlargement of Chichester Cathedral organ which was judged to have been done successfully and sympathetically.

I think a significant value of this recording is in providing a comparison with the sound of the Harrison & Harrison rebuild of 1938.  That strongly reflected the influence of Arthur Harrison, although he was not directly involved, having died before the work was carried out.  As examples: re-voicing the great reeds to give more power (suggesting that Hele had not interfered with them), adding harmonic trebles to chorus and solo reeds, enlarging the pedal organ by extension and borrowing (although, paradoxically, reducing the compass from 32 to 30 notes) and controversially removing the Father Willis vox humana and tuba clarion from the solo organ.  Tierce mixtures were retained on the great and swell, but they were recast in the next 1986/88 rebuild.  But, that's another story.  

On this record I believe we hear the beautiful Father Willis flutes and swell reeds - (probably with the tierce mixture) much as they would have sounded originally.



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  • Rowland Wateridge changed the title to Winchester Cathedral Organ recorded 90 years ago
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33 minutes ago, Rowland Wateridge said:


Interesting that a 1927 78 record of Dr Prendergast at Winchester Cathedral found its way to Australia.


... without getting broken in transit.

It reminds me of an anecdote retailed by my father who spent part of WW 2 at RAF Benbecula whence they flew sorties trying to catch U-boats going around Scotland on their way to and from the Atlantic.  He said a 'chippy' there knocked up a wooden transit case for him so that he could safely transport 78 rpm records to and fro between the base and his home in the Midlands when on leave. 

As for this interesting recording, I noticed that all of the repeats in my edition (arr. H A Chambers, 1947) were omitted, presumably so that it would fit on one side of the record.  With the repeats, it occupies about 5 1/2 minutes whereas without them, this recording lasts for only 3 1/2 minutes.  I also thought that the last section was rather hurried, perhaps for the same reason.

This reminds me of yet another anecdote, this time from Reginald Foort, who said that in his experience the most trying aspect of making recordings in the 1920s and 30s was the difficulty of ensuring the piece would fit on the record.  Endless rehearsals against a stopwatch were necessary to ensure this, but on occasions when the actual take was a shade too long, the wrath of the engineers was something to behold on account of the expense involved in writing off a wax master disc and the costs of obtaining and setting up another.  Apparently, according to him, the most successful recording artists were partly chosen in those days because of their skill at timing their performances to a nicety.

Thanks to you and Stanley for posting this link.

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Absolutely brilliant!    Your phonograph is something to behold! Despite their age and limitations to our contemporary ears these recordings were hailed as great technical achievments  at the time.   The organ was a very challenging instrument to record ( and still can be ! ) but the results still sound more than passable with the passage of time.  I believe Thalben-Ball and Dupre got away with murder when they were recorded by EMI in the `20`s at the Alexandra Palace.

Modern techno applied to cleaning up these museum pieces is remarkably effective, without removing the brilliant expertise of the original recording engineers.

My " clean up " on noisy old vinyl involves just spraying the playing surface with mere H2O; works quite well.

Sometime I must get down to the EMI museum where they have stacks of the original equipment on view, including their mobile studio.

Finally, it is quite amazing how much stuff in various genres was actually  recorded in 78 format,  I have rather an interesting volume entitled  "Gramophone Records of the First world War " which is a compilation of The HMV Catalogue from 1914 -18.

Symphonies, as one can imagine are rare but plenty of solo pieces, including organ and recordings made  " at The Front ".


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39 minutes ago, Adnosad said:

Symphonies, as one can imagine are rare but plenty of solo pieces, including organ and recordings made  " at The Front ".


I was raised in a home where there were cupboards full of pre-war 78 rpm recordings encompassing a wide range of genres, but I particularly recall a heavy boxed set of Beethoven's fifth symphony conducted by Toscanini on HMV.  I think it occupied five twelve-inch discs with sides numbered non-consecutively so that they could be loaded onto an early autochanger which then played the symphony complete, only requiring one manual intervention when you had to invert the whole stack of discs half way through.

Coming back to organ music, Sir Walter Alcock admitted to sometimes "coughing discreetly" (as he put it) when playing his own recordings to others, as he was aware that not all of the performances were flawless and of course he knew in advance where to do the coughing ...  I don't want to be picky, but thought I detected one or two slips in Dr Prendergast's recording of Wesley's Larghetto, but with an engineer behind him holding a stopwatch and no doubt prodding him from time to time to get a move on, is it to be wondered at, given Reginald Foort's reminiscences quoted above?

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A further unexpected treat.  The other side of the record, “Offertoire sur Deux Noels”, Guilmant, again remastered I believe in Australia, and issued three days ago by Vintage Sounds, to whom grateful acknowledgment.


I make no comment (I don’t feel competent to do so!) about the accuracy of Dr Prendergast’s playing.  These performances were recorded approximately six years before his death at the age of 65.  Incidentally, the organ was then 76 years old!  He was only two organists removed from Wesley and, I believe, a grandpupil of the great man: Winchester organists in succession, 1849 Wesley, 1865 Dr Benjamin Arnold and 1902 Prendergast.  He had in common with Wesley being offered, and declining, a knighthood.

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