Peter Collins Day – a visit to two organs on 12/01/2013 by David Sutton

Remember those dreaded exams of yore - the question starting with “Contrast and Compare”?

North East London has two Peter Collins instruments and today we had the chance to directly “contrast and compare” them. Both, which were installed during the last 20 years (Woodford 1993 and Walthamstow 1996) in very contrasting venues, are of similar size but as the day progressed we found them to be quite different.

The day was split into two sessions – morning and afternoon, and the morning was spent at Woodford Green United Free Church.

The Woodford Green United Free Church

Woodford Green United Free ChurchThe opening recital was given by Peter Hurford to a packed church I remember. Carlo Curley also gave a recital there is his inimitable style. The instrument it replaced was a 3 manual Brindley and Foster equipped with their patent pneumatic wizardry including their sliderless soundboards and a general crescendo pedal and Swell reed transfers to Choir (which the writer knew well). Despite the complexity of its type, the action survived into the 1980s without too much trouble but then more and more problems surfaced. It was decided to replace the Brindley with a Peter Collins and down-size to a 2 manual mechanical action organ of neo-classical design using a great deal of the old pipe-work and the original case (modified with a new bright metal pipe front). The work was financed from the sale of part of the church site for re-development (housing).

The acoustic of the building is generous and seats about 200+. Because of this and its position (at the front and speaking unimpeded into the body of the church) the organ sounds quite loud. (Sometimes the same complaint was made about the previous instrument!) And the neo-classical concept does not allow for the soft romantic tones you can find in the typical English instrument. The number of Swell speaking stops has been reduced from 9 to 6 and there is now no ‘chorus’ reed (only an 8’ Schalmey) or mixture. The Great organ however has only one less than before but this time topped with a 4 rank Mixture - again no chorus reed but there is a separate Tierce. The Pedal department (of 5 stops) boasts one 16’ flue + chorus development and a 16’ reed (which the old organ did not have). All the pedal stops are ‘straight’ i.e. no borrowing as the action is mechanical. You can probably gather from these comments that this Peter Collins organ can be restricting in what repertoire you can play satisfactorily. If you want to have a diet of 100% baroque/early or ascetic fare, it is OK but anything romantic in nature is somewhat difficult to put over. Again in time honoured fashion, which seems to rule the day now for new instruments, there are precious few helps for the player – a flat straight pedal-board, drawstops set in vertical single lines into jambs parallel to the keyboards and very few registration aids as the whole action is mechanical. Although the writer was not too enamoured of the tone, nevertheless some of the other players in our group did find it satisfying. It is a mystery to me as to how Peter Collins managed to adapt the original B & F ranks on a possibly higher wind-pressure to the lower pressure (?) of the new regime. Anyway………….

Suitably fired up, we walked round the corner to the Rose and Crown and had a tasty pub lunch over a pint and had a good time just socializing. Duly fortified in the inner man (and woman) we moved on to our next port of call:-

Church of Our Lady and St George, Shernhall Street, Walthamstow

St George's Shernhall Street Jan 2013#4
The exterior of this building is to me a little forbidding but, when you get inside, it is a revelation. It is a rebuild following destruction by fire. The footprint of the church forms an oval and the interior is gently flooded with daylight (even on a grey day in January) from high up windows assisted by electric light from chandeliers. The church is ‘in the round’ and the organ occupies a space on the wall and speaks into the church space unimpeded. As at Woodford the action is 100% mechanical and has the expected lack of registration aids and a spartan console but this is where the comparison ends. Although it is smaller than Woodford (but nevertheless having the same chorus build up + a trumpet stop on the Great) the tone to me sounds bigger and there is a blend and an excitement (which is missing at Woodford). This church is again blessed with a generous acoustic and sound ‘sings’ into it, unlike Woodford where to me the tone is a little strident and forced. One could go through each stop but that would be counter-productive as views on this subject can be so very subjective – see previous comment! Suffice it to say, to those who spoke to me seemed to agree with my sentiments. According to the NPOR entry it looks as if the pipe-work at Walthamstow is new – unlike Woodford where the old was re-used and adapted.

As usual, good food features in our meetings and at St Georges we had a lovely spread of home-made cakes courtesy of Alison Morris washed down with a warming cup of tea – very welcome on a cold grey January day.

Our grateful thanks are due to David Bird who hosted at Woodford and Chris Morris at Walthamstow for showing us such interesting instruments housed in surroundings to suit - no dull or predictable suburban Victorian Gothic architecture but Byzantine at Woodford and ‘Modern Minimalist’ at Walthamstow, both churches having interesting interiors to heighten the senses.       

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