Visit to the Union Chapel Islington on 11/01/2014 by David Sutton
´Twas on a sunny Saturday morning that 18 of us gathered at the venue. I came by underground and the moment I rounded the corner at the station entrance I saw this enormous edifice with a tower soaring into the blue. This proved to be our eventual destination. For security reasons however we entered via the back door and when I crossed the threshold I heard in the distance the glorious sounds of the restored three-manual Father Willis before I even entered the sanctuary. I thought to myself – WOW!! I had a double WOW when I actually set foot in the church itself. It is huge, octagonal in shape with a roof over the central space which hurts the neck as you crane upwards to view it. With galleries on three sides it seats about 1500 people. That was the size of congregations there in 1877 when the church was opened. The puzzling thing is – where is the organ?
At the east end beyond the pulpit of immense proportions locates the organ-chamber. The sound emanates unimpeded over the top of a stone colonnaded screen and is reflected into the sanctuary. Everywhere is stone/marble/brick or glass – apart from the pews – and the result is a warm acoustic generating about two seconds of reverberation. Father Willis was known for his fiery chorus reeds and incisive diapason choruses and Harrisons have taken away decades of greasy dirt to allow this magnificence peal forth again.
Janet Gilbert of the Organ Project gave us a potted history of the building saying it was the second church on this site. The first, although only 12 years old was demolished to make way for the building we were in now as the congregations increased to such vast proportions a much larger church was required! The organ was built for this building and, despite some work on it over the years, it has survived more or less intact as Willis built it. The organ stool has been inhabited by names from the Victorian era which are familiar including J.H.Gauntlett (of 'Once in Royal' fame) and Ebenezer Prout (editor extraordinaire of Handel’s Messiah et al). Adrian Gunning, our host, introduced us to the instrument with a short talk and then played some Karg Elert and John Ireland which showed off its remarkable tonal range and very effective swell-box and whetted our players’ appetite for things to come.
Yours truly started the try-out session with one of his 'meanderings' and finished with a stirring Solemn March by C.H.Lloyd which must have been penned about the same time as when the organ was built. Others followed with a very varied selection of pieces ranging from a piece composed by the player (Robert Clark) and Mendelssohn with seemingly everything else between.
As we were inundated with players we had to ration our goes to about five minutes or so which really wasn’t enough to do justice to this organ. There are no thumb pistons – the stop action was mechanical. There are however four combination pedals and (praise be!) a balanced swell pedal. The manual touch is delightfully light and responsive and a tribute to the restored Barker Levers. All in all the experience for the player is very satisfying if you ignore the lack of aids. The tone as you can gather is electric (where it needs to be) with those reeds and the main diapason chorus together with those incomparable Willis flutes and gentle strings. I was surprised by a lack of a Swell double reed when I played. When Adrian played I did not notice it. The quietest rank on the Pedals was a 'substantial' 16’ Bourdon, the other four (including a 16’ Trombone) being used to back up the louder ensembles.
During the morning we had a visitor, Carl Jackson of the Chapel Royal Hampton Court, who gave us a ravishing display of tone colour with a Howells piece (played from memory). This event was attended by two of our newest recruits to CLESO, Robert Clark and Chris Edwards. Eighteen was a goodly number of attendees for our events particularly as we were delighted to have Catherine Ennis our president with us. She managed to find time in her crowded diary to come and see what went on and to have the chance to meet and chat with our members.
Janet Gilbert of the Organ Project was heartily thanked for this marvellous opportunity to play such a gem and she in turn thanked us for coming as she wants this organ better known and more appreciated. The Union Chapel itself is still used as a church but this large building is becoming more and more used as a music and concert venue and, now the organ is restored, it is being used in these events – sometimes in surprising ways we were told. Adrian was thanked for the generous way he gave up his Saturday morning for us and for demonstrating this organ so beautifully.