Visit to the Grosvenor Chapel Mayfair on 18/06/2012 by David Sutton
We were in the midst of embassy land. The American Embassy is just down the road. Diplomatic number plates feature prominently on the parked cars. This building has been on this site since the early 18th century. The organ within has not (although it could easily have been) and all will be revealed shortly.
Like most instruments over the years, the original one has been altered to suit the prevailing trends of the period. When the time arrived in the late 20th century to reassess what needed to be done to rectify the ravages of time, the decision was taken to try and reinstate an instrument reflecting the style of the early 18th century to befit a building of the same period. William Drake was engaged to do this in 1991 and the result is highly illuminating. The obvious concessions to modernity are a balanced swell pedal, an electric blower and a pedal organ. The 'non-concessions' came to light as the evening progressed as we shall see.
Richard Hodson, the organist of the church, greeted us warmly and gave a short history of the building and organ which was very helpful in getting us to understand how matters had evolved to the state of things as they now are. He is passionate about many things 'organic' and very mindful of the heritage we have concerning the organ there and also elsewhere where historic instruments are sited – such as Christ Church Spitalfields which is now in the throes of being restored by William Drake and will, hopefully, be heard again in all its glory in a year or so.
Richard then proceeded to demonstrate the instrument by music written by Purcell and we were transported back to that period quite beautifully by the choice of stops Richard used – the open and stopped diapasons, cornet etc etc. William Drake has been established now for many years as a protagonist of the pure tones recreating those gems of the early English organ scene. Many of us had come armed with an assortment of music from this period knowing (more or less) what we had to play with. However a real surprise was a convincing performance of some Stanford which showed the organ was not stuck in the late Jacobean/early Georgian period!
I mentioned 'non-concessions' to modernity earlier. We are so used to our organs being tuned to equal temperament, so for some it came as bit of a shock to find this instrument was tuned differently. One of our players found he really had to struggle with playing a piece in E major for example. I, for one, did not stray too much from C major and closely related keys so did not experience any predominant aural oddity. Richard, our host, did not seem to mind it – indeed he positively relished the idea. This seems to me to typify some of the divide in our organist world. Some of us champion the flat pedalboard, square jambs, drawstop heads not being labelled (i.e. how a few things were done about two centuries ago) and some of us on the other hand champion using every possible modern contrivance to ease the lot of the player (i.e. registration aids, concave and radiating pedalboards, inclusion of electronic voices to supplement the tonal spectrum, labelling of drawstop heads on 45 degree jambs and making console layout generally easier to manage.). If I may introduce a personal note, I have to say I am slightly right of centre (i.e. make it easier for the player without conceding or compromising the quality of tone). I have said before judging tone is subjective, so to complain would be churlish and unfair. In the case of the Grosvenor Chapel the tone, for me (and I believe for all of us) wins hands down, but for me and several others of us the instrument is difficult to manage, certainly when experiencing it 'cold'.
However, due to the enthusiasm of Richard Hobson and the sterling work of William Drake, the music of the Grosvenor Chapel has become something of an icon in the London musical scene and we are all grateful to such venues for making London such a vibrant centre for musicians (and the arts in general). We are also grateful for the opportunity to play here and experience such a different instrument to the ones we usually play. Let us hope we have been educated and enlightened so we can look at what we do and reassess how we approach things back home.