Oxford Trip – 18th April 2015

The group of six destined for this trip quickly whittled down to four on the day for various reasons as glorious spring sunshine accompanied our trip to Oxford.

The first stop of the day was The Queen’s College Chapel, home to the landmark 1965 Frobenius organ. This organ has had a profound influence on British organ builders, pointing the way for a revolution in British organ building to reintroduce mechanical action and a craft-based, rather than a parts-based, approach to making new organs. The organ is very gently voiced in the spacious but acoustically encouraging environment of the Queen’s College Chapel. The foundation stops are delicate and the mixtures are relatively strong, creating very bright choruses, according to the neo-classical ideals of the time. The approach works in this acoustic and the flutes are extremely pretty - this is a very lovely organ to listen to. The playing experience also speaks of the neo-classical ideals of the time, with a light, smooth action, a radiating concave pedalboard (which today seems slightly odd on such a classical organ) and general compactness and simplicity. The layout of the stops, with each division split over both sides, took some acclimatisation.

Our next stop was nearby Jesus College chapel, with an organ built by William Drake in 1995. This two manual organ draws a strong inspiration from the British classical tradition, with Diapasons, Trumpets, Cornets and both Tierce and quint mixtures on both manuals, to create a remarkably cohesive and flexible organ. Immediately a richer, bolder and more convincing organ than the slightly reticent Frobenius, the choruses and reeds have a fullness, warmth and grandeur which culminates in a very exciting and thrilling organ. While it can quicken the pulse with its excitement and drama, it never verges into grossness or harshness but it doesn’t pull its punches either. Initially we were sceptical about the French symphonic music we found in the loft but after trying it, we were convinced. The organ’s action had a reassuring polished suaveness about it – it all operated perfectly, although the unusual stick swell pedal took some getting used to. This had some form of clutch, which engaged to hold it whenever you took your foot off the pedal but its use clearly required an acquired knack. However, the box was highly effective and, with an unenclosed string and flutes on the Great organ, this is an organ which can lend itself to the daily round of Choral Evensong with aplomb. The flutes have a quinty tang about them and the wind supply is quite flexible – there’s subtle suppleness about it which gives extra expression to the organ, especially solo lines. The beautiful, meticulous quality of construction of this organ, the standard of voicing, the poised key action and the assured sense of purpose and style in this organ puts it in a class of musical instrument which is rarely found or equalled – a true Rolls-Royce of an organ.

After a convivial lunch at an Italian restaurant, we walked to St John’s College Chapel with its Aubertin organs. This French organ’s spectacular case dominates the west end of the chapel, complete with stars, moons, comets and shooting stars, reminiscent of something from Walt Disney. While its highly imaginative design produces some brilliant solutions for the space, it sits slightly uneasily in the more restrained chapel, its brilliant execution and craftsmanship just about making it work. The organ produces some fine and distinctive sounds but it is difficult to work out how the organ is supposed to work after the most obvious classical registrations and it is sometimes a struggle to create wholly persuasive registrations. After the WDAO trip to Bergerac a few years ago, it was quickly apparent this organ didn’t possess the acculturated registrations and effects of true French Classical organs but it didn’t fit any other school of organ building either. Unfortunately, the organ’s undeniable gallic (some might say bucolic) charm was also undermined by its “gallic” tuning and regulation during our visit, which, considering the considerable recent expense of this organ the college must have made, almost bordered on neglect.

Our final visit of the day was in the richly decorated, somewhat phurunargian, interior of Keble College Chapel. This establishment was founded by John Keble, rector of Hursley and Otterbourne in the 19th Century, and one of the leading lights of the Oxford Movement. The chapel, with at least four seconds of acoustic, now has a modern organ by Kenneth Tickell in the Butterfield case of the previous Hill organ. Those of us acquainted with Kenneth Tickell’s earlier carefully considered (if occasionally slightly contrived) organs were in for a surprise. This is an organ with a clear late romantic character inspiration, and a sense of scale and excitement about it wholly absent from his earlier, classically disciplined work. The ghost of John Compton seemed to abound in this organ (no surprise really – Kenneth Tickell trained at Grant, Degens and Bradbeer, who in turn trained at Comptons) and it was fascinating to see how the development was turning full circle, with large rolling open basses, exciting firey Swell reeds cutting through Great foundations and a strong sense of foundation. It had all the desired late-Romantic effects desired by organists rooted deeply in the world of choral accompaniment and it does them all with a convincing sense of assurance – Choir Clarinet or Solo flute over Celestes, etc. Indeed, the most disappointing tonal aspect of the organ was the Great Diapason chorus, which seemed to lack any sense of treble ascendancy and musical line – possibly an effect of the modern scaling approaches used by Tickell. John Compton was renowned for his electric innovations in British organs’ action and this organ, with its wholly electric inter-manual coupling, seemed to suggest a greater degree of comfort with modern electric action than its nominally tracker action, which felt slightly at odds with the character of the rest of this organ.

All in all, an excellent outing by the WDAO, with four superb, very interesting organs which were all very different in their ways and gave us plenty of food for thought.

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