Visit to Westminster Central Hall on 10/09/2012 by David Sutton
When I heard that the magnificent instrument at the Central Hall was being renovated, and that fact was reinforced by Malcolm Bell – a staunch Methodist!, I resolved that CLESO should go and see the end result. So, courtesy of Malcolm and the Revd.Tony Miles who is on the staff of WCH (and formerly minister of Loughton Methodist Church) we made contact with Gerard Brooks the organist and director of music. As you can imagine it is a very busy place and the hall is used for meetings of all kinds and conferences but, subject to no gatherings taking place at the last moment, we were booked in.
For those of you who have not visited the building, it presents as a monument to opulent, confident Edwardian Britain. Via a sweeping stone staircase from the central lobby, you gain entrance to the Great Hall to be found on the first floor. This huge edifice was built on the site of the Royal Aquarium, a Victorian building and institution which never 'took off' and fell into disrepair. This can never be said of the Methodist Central Hall! It hums with activity and is the non-conformist centre of this hub of government and history which is Westminster.
The organ for this place was built by Arthur Hill in 1912 – not a particularly large instrument (42 stops) but, according to contemporary reports, spoke well into the auditorium which, our host Gerard informed us, then had a reverberation period of more than six seconds! Now, due to the soft furnishings everywhere, that is reduced to a bare second or so. But so far as we were concerned the tonal output had not suffered as a result! Over the years this instrument was added to, culminating in an embracing make-over in 1970 by Rushworth and Dreaper incorporating some ideas of the then organist Dr Lloyd Webber (father of Lord Andrew). However this effort did not really address the shortcomings of an organ that had grown 'like topsy'. Apparently there were several ranks that had not been tuned since the time of installation because they were unreachable by the tuner! (The writer had this at his first church as organist where the Swell 16’ reed chest was so placed that the tuning wires were inaccessible - the result after 30 odd years of neglect can be imagined!). Also it was apparent that the soundboards now needed serious attention. It came to a head when the organ 'died' at an important wedding. The gauntlet was therefore thrown down and the church community responded in the only way possible. Harrison and Harrison were instructed to re-build and they now have an instrument of which they can be very proud, with new soundboards and action and sensibly re-sited departments and windchests.
After Gerard’s short history and demonstration of its capabilities (including a 'rippling' Great Claribel Flute – Gerard’s favourite stop), he pointed out that the original Hill draw-stop heads had been used. And not only that, any new voices had new draw-stop heads exactly in the Hill style. The new could not be distinguished from the old. This is an example of the trouble Harrison & Harrison took to get things right.
With all this magnificence how would we cope when allowed to play? Firstly, Gerard was so helpful when asked in sorting out our registrations. Secondly, Harrison and Harrison design and workmanship made it all so relatively easy to manage. Thirdly, the various tones and ranges of tone blended effortlessly. Nothing caused the ear to say “ouch”. Needless to say 'full organ' did feature several times and, although extremely loud, the sound was so exciting – unlike some organs where it seems the ladling on of decibels is the only criteria.
The organ is unashamedly English in character and a wonderful testament to our tradition. A feature of this organ is the totally unenclosed Choir division with a fully developed flute chorus topped by a three rank mixture and trumpet. It could be described as an alternative great division. The fiery Solo Orchestral Trumpet is however under expression, so when added to the ensemble with the box shut it adds a crescendo of amazing brilliance to that final chord when the box is opened. One could go on and on……
CLESO was so fortunate to be able to come and savour the delights of this organ. We thank Gerard for the opportunity of this evening and the generous donation of his time. We thank the staff and team at WCH for our welcome, and the help and support when the writer stupidly mislaid his music – which is now safely back in its proper home!
Finally, thank you members of CLESO who made this evening so memorable.