No panic: Graham proves he can Händel the first Wednesday@One in our new Organ Recital season

Graham Thorpe became Bradford Cathedral’s new Assistant Director of Music and Sub-Organist here in August 2019 and will be the first organist up at the first season of organ recitals in 2020. We spoke to him about his upcoming second organ recital in the job; what you can expect from the series if you’ve never been before; and his future plans for playing the organ abroad.

Graham Thorpe at the Bradford Cathedral organ.

How did you find your first organ recital at the Cathedral?

Absolutely terrifying! More so than I would with a normal organ recital because you know that this is now your place of work, and everyone is looking to you to play well. Occasionally organ recitals do go wrong and you don’t want that to happen in the place you play every day!

How did you pick the pieces for your organ recital programme?

I’d like to say by panic and using a pin on a long list! When choosing a programme you are restrained by the length of the recital; what you think will sound well on the organ; and what you actually really want to play. I chose the Landmann Variations on a theme by Händel, the final piece first, and then tried to construct a programme around that. The first piece in the programme is another piece that’s based on a Handelian theme. It’s actually a harmonium piece, but it works very nicely on the organ.

These two composers are both German. Karg-Elert was late-romantic and Landmann was 20th century, but the pieces they’ve written are based on Handel’s music.

The three pieces in the middle, was another consideration. You don’t want too much too loud; you want a nice balanced programme. For the middle we have two chorale preludes to make a mirrored programme. One of the compositional techniques of the baroque style was writing a variation on a hymn tune, so we have two of those, one by Georg Böhm and that’s based on the Lutherian tune for the Lord’s Prayer, and the other chorale prelude is An Wasserflüssen Babylon, which a setting of psalm 137 ‘By the waters of Babylon, I sat down and wept’, the Gentiles’ lament about being in exile.

Then, the central piece of the programme is a large praeludium by Dietrich Buxtehude who wrote in a similar style to Böhm; Bach was inspired by both composers, they were roughly contemporary with Handel and they’re all German, so the programme has lots of connections.

If people are coming to an organ recital for the first time in 2020, what can people expect?

An organ recital is a programme of contrasting musical pieces that tries to show off the performer’s interests, the organ and new repertoire. They tend to be slightly less formal than in a concert hall and certainly at Bradford we try to keep it really friendly. We offer a buffet lunch and refreshments beforehand, and a chance to meet the performers.

Having created your programme, what is the timeline now as you head towards your organ recital?

Again, absolute panic! I’ve already played a lot of the repertoire. We’re not learning a new programme from scratch, which is where we differ from concert pianists, who will learn a brand new programme and then take it on tour for a year. Because of the nature of our jobs, we’re performing different music every day, so we have a lot of repertoire that we can get back under the fingers very quickly. But, we also like to throw in new pieces as well.

The process now will be to check that I can play all the notes – that’s quite important! – and make sure it’s all registered on the organ, which is choosing all the stops and sounds, and thinking about how they will then project down to the audience. It’s a different experience being sat at the console from being sat in the nave. You have to think quite carefully about how the sounds you’re choosing will sound when you go beyond the chancel arch.

I will definitely be playing some of the repertoire as my service voluntaries because that’s a really useful way of giving them a dry run, to make sure that everything works and is lying under your fingers, and it also balances that performance pressure which is the thing that will show up any weak parts in your playing.

I’ll come in the night before the recital for some final practice time, and then on the recital day it’ll be knowing what I want to say about the piece, and having everything set-up and ready to go, and then it’s off into the recital!

Do you have any dates for any touring recitals this year?

I normally find that the best way of keeping track of my recitals, is to look at instead of digging through a diary! Most end up on that website, which is a useful centralised place for me!

Excitingly I’m going to Germany this year at the end of July to give a couple of recitals, which will be the first time I’ve played recitals abroad. I also have a few recitals coming up at Halifax Minster, St. Michael’s Cornhill and St. Paul’s Cathedral. At the moment it’s nice to do recitals, but it’s not one of the main focusses of my work, as I have quite a busy job!

Will you be playing the German pieces over there?

Absolutely, but you might not necessarily want to take the repertoire that they’ve heard hundreds of times and know how to play better than any Englishman, allegedly! It can be really exciting to take English repertoire and see how it plays on German organs; it adds a new perspective for the person playing it. Perhaps you’re even showcasing pieces that the German recital audiences haven’t heard before.

Are there many differences with organs in other countries?

Obviously the sounds are different. If you go to Germany, you can play organs that Bach played. We don’t have anything as old as that in the UK. I think the earliest we can get to is the end of the eighteenth century. They do feel different. We have electronic actions as well as mechanical actions, so the way you have to play them is different; the keys are different; and the pedal sizes are different. There are so many different variables you’ll often find that if you learn how to play really well on an early instrument you can actually get it to speak in a much more satisfying way than with any modern instrument.

Join us for our weekly Wednesday@One Organ Recitals from Wednesday 15th January 2020 at 1pm, with a lunch buffet available from 12:30pm. Graham Thorpe will be playing the organ on that first Wednesday with pieces based around the work of Händel. More information on this recital, all others and this season’s coffee concerts can be found in the programme available to buy from the recitals and concerts.

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