Report on visit to the West London Synagogue on Thursday 19/03/2009 by David Sutton
This event was eagerly anticipated and did not disappoint. To my knowledge the society has never visited a synagogue before and questions were in people’s minds regarding the use of the organ (particularly an instrument of 57 speaking stops and four manuals) in Jewish worship which we thought was traditionally led by cantor and choir and chiefly a vocal exercise.
Eleven members were met by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, the organist, who has held the post there since 1973. While we consumed a very welcome cup of coffee, Chris gave us the background to the foundation of this reformed synagogue, built in the mid 19th century, and the three manual Gray and Davidson organ provided for it. In 1908 the instrument was enlarged to four manuals, tonally remodelled by Harrison and Harrison, and given a superb pneumatic action which gave valiant service with little trouble. The synagogue congregation has been over the years a recipient of very generous benefactions on the part of one individual. This gentleman approached them and said “I want to give a new organ!”. Chris realised what a gem they already possessed in the Harrison and replied “Why don’t you pay for the complete refurbishment of the organ you already have? It needs it”. He readily agreed and Kern of Strasbourg was approached to do the work. The renovations were carried out meticulously and great care was exercised not to change the Harrison persona in any way. The result is a vintage H and H in all its glory with all “mod-cons”.
After coffee we were led in to the synagogue itself – an imposing rectangular space with galleries on three sides, resplendent in marble and equipped with very comfortable seating. The fourth wall is occupied by the organ chamber and the screen behind which houses the console and the choir stalls. The organ front (with pipes now gilded in 22 carat-gold!) spans the width of the chamber which houses the organ. The high roof and marble generates the spacious but not over-generous acoustic which helps the instrument considerably. As is usual with Harrison and Harrison there is a wealth of quiet registers. There are no less than 10 flutes – two unisons of each variety on each manual, a full compliment of strings ranging from two sets of undulating stops (Swell and Solo), a dulciana chorus – 16/8/3-rank mixture - on the unenclosed Choir, to the viol ranks on the Solo. The rich but bright diapason choruses on the Great and Swell were topped by a three rank Sesquialtera on the Great and a four rank Mixture in the Swell. There is of course the usual complement of 16/8/4 chorus reeds on both Great and Swell, a magnificent Tuba on the Solo, and on the Pedal a Ophicleide 16 (with wooden resonators we were told) and Posaune 8. The Solo and Swell also were equipped with orchestral reeds of the Harrison standard.
Chris demonstrated the vast tonal resources to great effect and in the process also showed us how the organ is used in the context of worship. Before and after the service, voluntaries are played to suit the occasion. During the service it is used primarily to accompany the prayers which are sung by both choir and congregation. There are some prayers sung by cantor and choir alone. Sometimes the music takes a metrical form where the prayer is rather like a hymn. The other is much more free in the form of a modal chant with a free vocal line and supporting instrumental accompaniment and much more suited to choir/cantor. Much of the music used is still heavily influenced by the 19th century Germanic school but more and more indigenous Israeli trends are being introduced.
Several of us then took the opportunity to explore the instrument ourselves and universally agreed it was a delight. Chris then dropped a bombshell at the end. He announced the bench we organists were sitting on was only recently acquired, as the previous bench dated back to the original Gray and Davidson days and was getting “a bit long in the tooth”. They now had an actual H and H one for the first time and they had bought it from Westminster Abbey as it was surplus to requirements there. It transpires this very bench was in situ and used at the coronation of George VI. Our backsides felt very different after this!! The Gray and Davidson bench is now in store as a venerated antique.
We all agreed we had had an experience which we will not forget in a hurry, and we are so very grateful for the opportunity given by the synagogue and Chris for us to be able to play and listen to one of London’s “hidden organ gems” in such surroundings.