Visit to St George’s Metropolitan Cathedral Southwark on 05/07/2014 by David Sutton
On our last visit we went east. Now in the following month we went south to a cathedral which is not particularly on the tourist trail (although the Imperial War Museum almost opposite is). Why I do not know. Old it is not – Victorian by Pugin and partially rebuilt in the 50s following bomb damage - but it is well worth visiting in its own right, a gothic revival building with soaring arches, beautiful stained glass windows and an atmosphere which is very special. The day we were there had the most glorious floral arrangements in the quire. Whether it was a left-over from a previous special service (e.g. wedding) or not, they were an absolute picture.
Anyway we were not there to look at the flowers, lovely as they were. Our visit happily coincided with a recital by Nick Wibberley – a member of the Wibberley music dynasty. What a recital! It was the perfect demonstration of what the organ – a 70 stop three manual Compton of 1958 could do. We had the complete gamut, soft strings (with a very effective 32’ polyphonic SubBass), sparkling diapason chorus, a tuba which was very evident (in the right way!), etc.etc. You name it – you got it! Throughout most of the recital there was a gentleman kneeling on the altar steps with his arms raised in adoration to a God he obviously adored. The mixture of this sight and the organ being played so magnificently made the whole experience so very complete.
I must admit I have not been convinced of the worth of John Compton and his extension ideas but after hearing this instrument I have changed my mind. In my estimation, of the big Comptons built in the 1950s I have heard and played, (St Brides Fleet Street, St Alban’s Holborn inter alia) Southwark is by far the most successful. Perhaps it is the very generous acoustical properties of the building which gives the tone that ethereal bloom. Whatever it is, it won me over.
What also won us over was the wonderfully warm welcome we experienced from Norman Harper, the Music Director. His enthusiasm seemed to know no bounds. He gave us free reign of this magnificent instrument all afternoon, and those of us who were privileged to have a go found things typically easy to manage.
The console is situated at the back of the apse of the quire so the player can hear things in perspective quite well – unlike its Anglican counterpart by the river. The downside of this is that when the choir is at the west end for some services the distance coupled with a huge acoustic makes liaison between choir and organist rather hit and miss. It can also cause problems for the unwary organist when accompanying the congregational singing. Norman told us that sometimes wedding couples ask for their own organist to play for their ceremony and Norman always has to point out the perils of handling the singing of a congregation which is so remote. He did not let on how many had bowed out and asked the resident musicians to do the job. He suggested (in hopes) the provision of a west end division but………..
The reader will gather I had a wonderful time and from what can be garnered from the others who went, they did too. In his goodbyes Norman urged us in the warmest of tones to come back. We will I am certain! Thank you Norman, Nick and the Cathedral authorities for such an inspiring afternoon.