Ian Bell

Mechanical Advantage

11:44, 2nd March 2018

A new Flentrop organ matches its glorious surroundings in London’s Royal College of Music, writes Ian Bell.

Photos courtesy Flentrop Orgelbouw

An invitation to review a significant new organ can be a mixed blessing. The reviewer’s immediate impression of the outcome may diverge worryingly from that of both the builder and the proud purchaser; words may have to be chosen delicately, eggshells tip-toed over with very careful feet.


In this case, additional detached input from a trusted colleague seemed wise, so I invited Dr William McVicker to accompany me and to share his opinion, and any blame. Stepping from London’s cheering winter sunlight into the equally bright surroundings of the Royal College of Music’s Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, and finding RCM organ professor David Graham flooding the room with the glorious, civilised, sophisticated tutti, dispelled all concerns.


The instrument replaces a well-intentioned and soundly executed Harrison & Harrison rebuild, in 1958, of a Walker organ of 1901, set in a heavy-weight Edwardian case provided to honour Sir Hubert Parry, the director of the College at the time that the Walker organ was installed. By the time that I was asked to report on the organ in 2005, the 50-year-old mechanism was slow and tired, the largely Walker pipework uninspiring, and its condition meant that the instrument was rarely used – and soon abandoned altogether. As the College’s artistic director Stephen Johns put it, when we recently met, ‘The first thing that visitors and potential students saw when they walked into the Hall was a large, dead, instrument – what did that say about us?’


The process of commissioning a new organ was overseen by a small committee of RCM-related organists chaired by Johns, and a shortlist of builders was offered a free hand to submit whatever designs seemed appropriate to reflect the expectations that were explained to them. The outcome was the appointment of Flentrop, jointly headed by Frits Elshout and Erik Winkel. As Johns explained, ‘The College drew up a careful brief, outlining the essential usages of the instrument, but stressing that we were looking for an organ of integrity and musicality. There were substantial discussions along the way, much guided by Flentrop’s particular style, expertise and understanding. We also asked that the appearance must complement and enhance the beautiful hall in which it stands. We’re pretty happy that all this has been fulfilled!’


The casework, also designed by Flentrop, is built in French Limousin oak, much prized for making the barrels in which fine wines and spirits mature – a connection that one might say is not without relevance, given the maturity which its contents here already display.


The instrument has 34 stops distributed across three manuals and pedals. The key and pedal actions, entirely of wood, are suspended and also tensioned. The topresistance of the key-touch is regular, and sufficiently firm to give safety but not to inhibit subtleties of attack, and the release is clean and prompt – not always guaranteed with suspended action. As Dr McVicker put it: ‘At a time when tracker action is beginning to lose its grip as the only preferred key action for a good organ, this instrument by Flentrop is a salutary reminder of the value of a beautifully designed and voiced mechanical instrument; it will help teach those who play it the discipline and subtleties which such an action demands of the player.’


The silent stop action is electric, and there is unobtrusive provision of both general and divisional thumb and toe pistons, with stepper. All of this is controlled by a multi-level piston system which, like all of the electrical equipment in the organ, was made in the UK by Taylor. Despite this discreet technology the console has a beautiful classical simplicity and holds onto references to its national pedigree: the parallel and slightly concave pedalboard, quite far forward; the very slightly truncated length of the manual keys; and the tall parallel stop columns, running in reverse order to the Anglo-American tradition, with 16ft flues at the top, reeds at the bottom. The manuals are simply designated I, II and III.


The wind supply is regulated by two very substantial ‘wedge’ or cuneiform bellows feeding a common main windtrunk, and supplying the 65mm pressure upon which the entire organ is voiced. In listening to and then trying the organ, the wind system did not intrude or attract attention. With determination, heavy registration and exaggeratedly detached playing, it is possible to disturb it, as it is with most ‘live’ wind systems. Equally, as David Graham points out, when making such demands the player can – and should learn to – keep it under control, a technique invaluable in approaching any historically influenced organ.


The avoidance of unhelpful extremes, allowing the organ making to be guided by needs rather than by trends past or present, extends to the pipework and voicing. In the Dutch style, everything is of metal except for the Pedal basses – Principal, Subbas, Bazuin – which are oak. The proportion of tin in the pipe metal varies: 12% for the flutes, 70% for the Viola, Mixtuur and Scherp, 89% for the façade pipes, and 30% for everything else including the reeds. The metal is cast on sand in the Flentrop workshop, and apart from the façade all of the metal is hammered in the historical fashion. The voicing of the flue pipes is with half-open tips, and in some cases varying amounts of nicking or filing of the languids, according to the needs of each pipe. The speech is quite fast, but not distractingly ‘chiffy’.


So much for techniques used in the hardware; what about the purpose, the all-important sound? The acoustics are sympathetic to the organ without obscuring clarity, and the immediate impact, breadth and nobility of the tutti suggests a much larger number of stops than exist here – and yet does not overwhelm. How is this achieved? Inside, the layout is intriguing, the central and forward position normally occupied by the Great being handed here to the Positive. Erik Winkel described the rationale: ‘This case style suggests pedal towers at both ends of the case, the Great in the middle, and a Positive on top. However, since we wanted a three-manual concept with at least two equal manual divisions (Great and Positive), and since the Hall is quite wide, we chose to have not the Pedal, but the Great divided at the left and right sides in the case, with the Great Prestant 16 in the façade from E. For clarity the smaller Pedal stops share the Great soundboard; the larger ones stand at the back. This way the Great sound will benefit from the side walls of the Hall and embrace the listener from both sides.


‘The emphasis of the Positive chorus is based one octave higher than the Great, and it is sited where normally the Great would be. Since we wanted the swell box to be of full height, the space below for the Positive was happily limited. This low space, and the flat, reflecting rollerboard of the Swell above it, give the projection of the Positive a boost. It should be seen as a powerful 4ft division, albeit with a full Principal 8 in the façade.’


The resulting equality of balance, particularly between Great and Positive, is a striking and slightly unexpected feature. Dr McVicker commented: ‘This is an organ which is completely honest about its Dutch roots. There is no dominating diapason here, no potent pedal reed, and the fundamental equality between all registers and divisions ensures an enviable blend of sound. The scene is set by the chorus structure of the Great, which is based on an equilibrium of voices, such that although the 16ft asserts its presence, all components of the diapason chorus from 16ft to 2ft have virtually the same volume level; the Mixture IV is slightly bigger in tone, with the quints “kept up”, supported by this strong backbone of principal tone – entirely in the northern European tradition. The Quint 3ft and Octaaf 2ft are equal partners throughout the compass, providing a vigorous Rauschquint in the chorus.


‘The Positive Prestant 8ft, largely in the façade, has a touch more presence than the equivalent Great stop, the 4ft slightly less so; the Positive Scherp tops the whole organ cleanly, without becoming tonally detached from it. The breaks of the various mixtures carefully avoid one another, and are not too high in the compass, again helping the blend and breadth.


‘The classical voices and beautiful flutes all have character and individual colour, without compromising their sociability. The reeds again follow the same pattern – colourful but well-disciplined, with no individual stop dominating. Each plays its part in fleshing out chorus combinations or bolstering the tutti, without coarseness or undue prominence.’


David Graham played a major role in the planning with Flentrop: ‘Discussions centred on ways to get maximum variety and individualism in all of the stops, while ensuring well-blended and balanced ensembles as well as an impressive tutti. Particularly important to this were the Pedal Principal and Roerquint, as well as the Swell Quintaton, which adds extra sonority and depth coupled to the full Great as well as building a north German-sounding plenum when coupled to the Positive chorus. The Swell tierce mixture also contributes valuable variety to both Great and Positive choruses. I am thrilled that the realisation [of our vision] has gone even beyond our high expectation.’


A final word should go to the artistic leader of the Flentrop team, Frits Elshout, who also directed the site tonal work throughout. Not a man given to flamboyant words or gestures, he responded modestly to my unreserved congratulations. ‘Thank you, Ian, for your enthusiastic reaction. I too experience the sound as very emotional – but I am prejudiced!’

The organ, part of the RCM More Music Campaign (www.rcm.ac.uk/moremusic), is named in recognition of James Zheng Huang HonRCM, generously supported by the Kingdom Music Education Group, with additional support from The Hon. Richard Lyttelton & Romilly Lyttelton, Jane Wilson and John Ward.


After 30 years as an organ builder, voicer and designer, Ian Bell has since 1993 worked fulltime as an independent organ consultant.

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