GOA visit to St Mary, Redcliffe and St. Augustine – Gloucestershire Organists’ AssociationAvon-Bristol-St-Mary-Redcliffe-Builder-Plate-33b[1]

The visit to St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol on Saturday 13 April was a wonderful opportunity to get to hear and play this famous Harrison organ. I had already heard it in Thomas Trotter’s re-opening recital after the rebuild and also from a good seat in a full-to-busting Masonic Christmas service (no, I don’t know how to do the shaky-hand thing!), so it was good to experience it in a more relaxed setting. Andrew Kirk welcomed us and gave a whistle-stop (!!) tour of the instrument before giving a magnificent rendering of the Guilmant ‘Grand Chœur.’ Then it was open console. Many members played, sometimes with Andrew’s assistance on registration. It was noticeable that several of our more senior members really took to the organ and gave some fine performances, thus validating the comfort of the console. Andrew rounded off with the last movement of the Elgar Sonata, demonstrating a wide range of colour and power. Avon-Bristol-St-Mary-Redcliffe-Console-35b[1]As to the organ itself, it is of Rolls-Royce quality that inspires some reverence when sat at the luxurious four manual console (which, of course, has all the current playing aids). First impressions are of impeccably smooth voicing in the best Harrison tradition and a truly magnificent and pervasive 32ft pedal Open Wood. The chorus reeds are very smooth which adds to the sense of grandeur. The building and the organ’s location within it require consideration from the organist as the acoustic is not that generous for so large a church. The great and choir (unenclosed) sections face each other across the chancel N and S with a small swell named solo/echo (to Dulciana Mixture and Oboe) on the S, pedal stops are also in these cases and the Tuba is in the S case. As a result the tone of these divisions is focussed across the choir rather than down the nave.

Avon-Bristol-St-Mary-Redcliffe-S-Chancel-case-16b[1]Hearing it on the two previous occasions, I thought that the power was barely sufficient to lead a large congregation in the nave. The unenclosed choir has some delicious sounds as does the small swell with its gentle strings, accompanimental flutes, and a small chorus. The great appears quite large, but despite the addition of a big quint mixture to the original tangy Harrison ‘Harmonics’, it really does not carry down the nave. Harrisons must have realised this, for they provided an enormous swell division on high pressure in a chamber on the corner of thenorth transept and choir aisle, with shutters, controlled by separate pedals, opening towards the chancel and N transept. Everything in this division is pushed very hard, from the harmonic flutes to a powerful and rare solo-style string chorus, diapason chorus, and probably the largest swell reeds in Christendom, down to the enclosed 32ft reed. Fortunately the swell shutters are very effective and can tame this division as needed. Once you are up to full swell, there is not much the great can add, and certainly the tuba is no climax.

The organist has a challenge in managing the dynamics of the two swell divisions, with the solo/echo played from the top manual and the swell from the usual third one. It must often be necessary to couple the solo/echo down to a lower keyboard and so general pistons will be a boon. The position of the console is such that the organist gets the big swell very much in the left ear! Careful registration can certainly yield some wonderful romantic sounds however, and it is a delight when playing the appropriate music. Since the rebuild the organ is now completely reliable, has negligible wind leaks and a good responsive action. Anyone who missed this visit missed a real character of an organ.   Der unruhestiftende Erzahler.

The Chapel of St Augustine (St Monica Trust). Westbury-on-Trym

The second visit of the day (13 April 2013) was to the Chapel of St Augustine at the St Monica Trust. Bristol and its environs are peppered with the legacy of world trade, not least tobacco, and perhaps the most prominent in this particular business comes the Wills family. Mary Monica Wills had a desire to buy a small rest home for ‘five or six missionary friends.’ That was in 1911 and, over the ensuing years, Monica Will’s original idea grew in scale, with ‘buying a small rest home’ becoming the building of ‘a purpose-built haven for chronic and incurable sufferers’. A committed High Church Anglican, she was also determined that at the heart of the project should be a ‘splendid and very beautiful chapel’. The foundation stone for the chapel was laid on St Monica’s Day, 4th May, 1920 and the building of St Monica Home was finally completed five years later in 1925. Assuming the chapel to be of domestic proportions one is unprepared for the grandeur that awaits. Internally built of a pale sandstone (Bathstone?) ashlar with tall and wide traceried windows the whole interior is flooded with natural light (the only stained glass being a magnificent window at the liturgical east end above the High Altar). Our entry was from a small door in the south transept to which we had been led by an external ramp for ease of access. The main entrance to the chapel is at the west end where it adjoins a corridor of the main residential parts of the buildings. A sizeable narthex leads to the chapel and this narthex has above it a stone balcony lit by another large traceried window filled with clear glass which must give an inspiring view into the chapel. The chapel is both wide and lofty. The pale stone walls contrast neatly with the dark parquet floor answered above by the substantial and steeply pitched wooden roof. The nave is of some three or four bays in length (I confess that I forgot to count) lit on either side by the large windows filled with clear glass and terminated with a richly carved Rood Screen (properly so-called as it carried the three, massive, customary figures of mourners and the crucified). Beyond this screen the chapel widens greatly. First of all are choir stalls in the traditional position leading to the Sanctuary, as wide as the chancel, with a fine High Altar of noble proportions and inspiring wide traceried window above, filled with fine stained glass. Quasi transepts, north and south, are extended eastwards to finish with a chapel on the south side and a vestry on the north meeting the eastern termination of the chancel and sanctuary. A splendid chapel indeed. The organ resides against the outer north wall of the chancel facing south. A useful information sheet (the only quibble, if one was to be pedantic, was the omission of the Lieblich Gedackt 8 from the swell organ stop list) was provided by the chapel organist, Dr John Bishop, who also spoke to us about the organ and briefly demonstrated its qualities in a fine romantically inspired ’Fantasy-Improvisation’. It was built by ‘Father’ Henry Willis in 1895 for Barley Wood, one of the residences of the Wills family, and is of the very best materials. It was given to St Monica Home in 1926 and was installed by Messrs Harrison & Harrison of Durham. At this time the great Open Diapason 8 was re-voiced and a three rank mixture added to the great (possibly displacing the original trumpet). Certain other ‘tinkerings’ have occurred over the intervening decades though nothing of any great consequence and these can be read about on the National Pipe Organ Register: http://npor.emma.cam.ac.uk/cgi-bin/Rsearch.cgi?Fn=Rsearch&rec_index=N08321 Tonally all that is Willis sounds like Willis: liquid flutes, gentle strings, full-bodied diapasons with the characteristic, almost explosive, ‘attack’ when brought on to speak, majestic reeds and heavy, though not ponderous, quick speaking basses. The great organ is basically a diapason chorus, 16ft – mixture, with a 4ft flute and Trumpet. This is odd and not typically Willis. The explanation is this: the original reed (Tromba 8ft) was replaced by a III rank mixture, 12, 19, 22, in 1976 by the firm of Percy Daniel of Clevedon. This, in turn, was revised to 17, 19, 22, (in the more usual Willis style) by Cawston in 2005 but in 2007 a new trumpet was added and voiced, we are told in the style of Willis, and the Claribel Flute was sacrificed for it (the pipes being saved and stored within the instrument). For our own ears this work has been only partially successful. The mixture works well enough with the acidy-tierce-twang but one wonders if it was really necessary as the chorus to fifteenth is very bright (again very characteristically Willis) with the upper work, we would imagine, being of small scale pipes blown hard. The Flute Harmonique is a fine stop but has no partner and is, therefore, in many respects redundant. The Claribel Flute, we would imagine, would be a good clear and liquid sound and a very useful, if not essential, part of this great organ’s make-up. The removal of this stop is all the more regrettable as we find the Trumpet a great disappointment. The voicing is far from anything Willis would have done: it is thin and light, almost ‘loose’. It adds some colour to the bold chorus but does not have the impact in power or tonal quality to be adjudged a success. If consulted we would recommend most strongly the reinstating of the Claribel Flute and either the re-voicing of the Trumpet and removal of the Mixture or the removal of the trumpet altogether if one felt that a mixture is absolutely necessary. It must be said here that the swell Cornopean is a powerful and magnificent specimen that can certainly be heard as a solo stop against a good deal of the great chorus, as was demonstrated by persons playing during the afternoon. The swell organ is a success; the only change having occurred is the replacement in c.1990 of the original Vox Humana 8ft for a Clarion 4ft of Walker pipes and it works well enough. (The swell, on the whole, is a bit of an ‘also ran’ compared with the great, notwithstanding the comments about the Cornopean, and this is why, perhaps, consideration needs to be given to the proper structure of the great organ). All else with the swell is as one would expect and a joy to listen to. No changes have been made with the choir organ (which is enclosed) and all the stops are a delight, clear, bright and, one might say with regard to the Corno di Bassetto, ‘fruity’. The pedal organ is of the usual nineteenth century conception, a provider of fundamental bass tone which it does very well. The Ophicleide 16ft has been revoiced in 2005 and is so nearly totally ‘right’ it would be a shame not to have this rectified but by someone other than Mr Cawston who’s work other than with the reeds seems to be well done The action is the original pneumatic, there are balanced swell pedals (in the modern style) to the swell and choir organs and three non-adjustable brass thumb pistons to each manual. The stop heads are large and of solid ivory, the keys covered in thick ivory and the console (attached in the centre of the facade) has a very luxurious feel which makes one want to play with elegance. In summary, we must say that if the couple of voicing concerns were addressed the whole organ in conception and practice would be totally satisfactory. As it is we cannot deny that this is a very fine organ in a magnificent setting: how lucky they are. Dr Lancelot Hummock