Rhinegold Photo credit: © Nick Moore

William McVicker

Issue: May/June 2018

Craftsman’s art

10:24, 15th May 2018

William McVicker visits a church in Bedford to experience a new mechanical action organ by Harrison & Harrison.

In recent years, Harrison & Harrison Ltd has perhaps become best known for its work on large cathedral-style organs. Recent projects include the rebuilding of the organ at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge and the re-pitching of the Peterborough Cathedral instrument. Current work includes the restoration or rebuilding of the organs in Canterbury Cathedral and York Minster, as well as undertaking work ‘down under’ at Adelaide Cathedral. The firm’s new mechanical organs are sometimes eclipsed, partly by the bigger projects and because of geographical remoteness: recent mechanical instruments include Glenalmond College, Perth (II/26, 2007), Edington Priory (II/26, 2014), and Hakadal Kirke, Norway (II/17, 2015). Their 22-stop instrument for St Andrew’s, Bedford, is perhaps more readily accessible by organ enthusiasts, and was therefore awaited with interest.

St Andrew’s Church began its life in 1895 as a ‘tin tabernacle’. The nave of the present building was completed in 1930, the sanctuary and chancel having been added in 1963. As its millennium project, the parochial church council replaced the church hall with new facilities designed by the architect Bruce Deacon and opened in June 2004. It is now used extensively, both by church organisations and by a wide range of community groups. Music for services is standard parish fare, sung by a growing choir: Stanford in B flat, Wood’s O thou the central orb, and so forth. The church sports a concert series with a varied musical lineup, as well as a recital programme, featuring local and national artists.

The National Pipe Organ Register records that the church had a Norman & Beard instrument dating from 1914 and altered by Davies of Northampton in 1963 when the church was extended. The new organ, which I visited in the company of Ian Bell, was dedicated by the Bishop of Bedford on 26 February 2017. Boasting1,436 pipes, it has been made to the highest standard of professional craftsmanship. It stands in the two eastern bays of the north nave aisle: the Great and Swell organs are in one case (to the west) and the Pedal stops in another (to the east). The handsome oak cases, built around and beneath the arches, are substantial but elegant additions to the church. The spotted-metal case pipes are highly characteristic of Harrison & Harrison’s modern work – as well as a feature of 19th-century builders, such as Lewis and Willis. The tall central pipe in the Pedal case must represent the longest pipe that H&H can cast without needing to piece two sections of pipe metal together. The blue cloth in the cases (the colour associated with St Andrew) is a neat and calming touch.

The console is comfortable, ergonomic, and beautifully constructed in quarter-sawn oak - Image credit: Nick Moore
The console is comfortable, ergonomic, and beautifully constructed in quarter-sawn oak – Image credit: Nick Moore

The Great is at the top of the ‘western’ organ case and the enclosed Swell is beneath, immediately above the player. The Great has more impact further down the church, as does the Pedal, which sounds in much better balance when heard from the nave than from the chancel. The console is entirely characteristic of Harrison &Harrison’s work: supremely comfortable, ergonomic, and beautifully constructed in quarter-sawn oak, with plenty of character revealed in the timber grain. This is a small organ which can easily be hand-registered; the electrical system and registration aids are comprehensive, but not overdone.

The Great chorus is based on a bold and melodic Open Diapason; it is a good stop which grows subtly in character and volume as the scale ascends, allowing the treble to sing out. The Octave 4ft is a good match for the 8ft, giving robust power to the backbone of the chorus. The 2ft is perhaps a little acerbic in the mid-treble when heard close to the instrument, but the chorus needs this drive to project into the body of the church. The power of the main chorus is kept up through the 4ft and 2ft stops. The Mixture (19.22.26.29) is slightly held back and the quints a little restrained, but this stop adds genuine power to the chorus. The Sesquialtera is punchy and works well in the chorus, providing both the tang of a tierce rank and the missing twelfth from the mixturework, as well as fulfilling a useful solo function.

The flutes are charming. The Stopped Diapason is perhaps on the small side: when added to the Open Diapason it adds relatively little to the foundation tone. But this is perhaps a harsh criticism in an organ of 22 stops where compromises have to be made: this flute needs to be soft enough to accompany solo sounds on the Swell Organ – a role it fulfils admirably.

(from left) Inside the Pedal case; Great pipework; and behind the console - Image credit: Nick Moore
(from left) Inside the Pedal case; Great pipework; and behind the console – Image credit: Nick Moore

The Great Clarinet is a super stop, providing a particularly creamy sound when combined with the Harmonic Flute. The Trumpet is an ‘honest chorus reed’ with a slightly splashy tone and a hint of posaune in the tenor.

The Swell is subtler than one might think on first encounter. It is halfway between a secondary chorus and a Swell division, resembling a Positive, especially with its high-pitched, three-rank Mixture (22.26.29) and perky Larigot. The bright, halfcapped Hautbois, with its bassoon bass, is characterful and especially successful with the Sub Octave, giving the impression of a Contra Fagotto, an effect which transforms the division into a very useful Full Swell.

The Swell strings are simply divine; the Salicional is given more drive and harmonic interest to make up for the lack of a Diapason, while the Celeste is a softer version of the Salicional and scaled several notes smaller. When the box is open they slightly overwhelm the Great Stopped Diapason, although when heard from further away, these stops are in a better balance.

Ian Bell and I recently saw the new Flentrop at the Royal College of Music, where all the pipework is within the case. At Bedford, no such spatial luxury was afforded, and the Great and the Swell are nearer to the congregation than the Pedal department. As a result, the Pedal has to work very hard to be a good match and to balance with the manual fluework, as it is further away from the listener. This must have been a challenge for the voicers, but the result is fine. Heard from the nave, the wooden Trombone holds its own and underpins full organ quite happily.

The keys have just a hint of false touch; this works well and, of course, saves the player from clipping notes accidentally. The actions are positive without being heavy, even with the coupler and Sub Octave drawn. The keys have springs attached to them – unusual in a balanced key-action – which were added to ensure that the keys return promptly to provide a crisp feel beneath the fingers. Does it affect the player’s perception of the touch? No, it doesn’t.

On some instruments, reed stops may not react well to a tremulant; sometimes the tone is confused by odd notes which have an unusually deep vibrato. There is no such problem here – the tremulants work well, and the effect when used with the Clarinet is particularly pleasing.

This is a colourful instrument with lots to enjoy for such a small and versatile specification. On first encounter the stoplist perhaps looks a little restricted, but it turns out to be amazingly flexible, partly due to the provision of registration aids, but also through the thoughtful inclusion of the Swell Sub Octave, together with a few other neat touches, such as the bright Oboe and contrasting creamy Clarinet.

The project is clearly a huge success and organ builders Harrison & Harrison should be congratulated. The new organ has reinvigorated the music in the parish, and Paul Searle-Barns, the current organist, is very pleased with it. With the recent development work in the parish centre next door and a new pipe organ, this is a church truly fit for purpose in the 21st century.

William McVicker is organ curator at the Royal Festival Hall, chairman of the Association of Independent Organ Advisers, and professor of organology at the Royal Academy of Music, where he was recently elected an Honorary Associate. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Musical Instrument Technology

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