Visit to Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church on 19/11/2011 by David Sutton
This church is regarded as something of a mecca for our Baptist brethren. As the Westminster Central Hall is for the Methodists so Bloomsbury is for the Baptists. We were welcomed by Philip Luke – who is celebrating 25 years as organist there – and who told us he regularly gets coach-loads of American Baptists on Sunday mornings. The building has been there since Victorian times and the organs have had a chequered history. The first was considered inadequate and thrown out. The replacement was a Brindley and Foster (equipped with the firm’s famous slider-less soundboards). That soldiered on until the mid 60s when Hill Norman and Beard had a go at bringing things up to date with electrification of the primary action and tweaking the tonal specification. However this state of affairs was not really satisfactory and the time came for a complete reappraisal. A decision was made to start again, 'from the ground up', and the result is, in my view, quite stunning. We now have in effect a new J.J.Binns, as two smaller redundant Binns instruments have been amalgamated with some minor additions. The work has been carried out by the Shepherd brothers John and Eric with John Males.
Philip in his introduction took us through the tonal gamut from soft (for my taste you cannot get soft enough on this instrument) to extremely loud as it has a Tuba on 10 inches of wind. There also is a Trompette of similar volume. The church has a substantial gallery where the organ is sited at the back and to some extent there is a 'sound shadow' cast by the gallery shielding the congregation on the ground floor from the very 'forward presence' of this instrument. When I remarked about this to Philip as to whether the congregation might have difficulties in keeping their end up in the volume department in the singing of the hymns, Philip had no hesitation in saying there was no problem – the Baptists are good at singing! Those of CLESO who went on the Cambridge day may remember Queens College. To my mind the sound there was bright and forward and above all sang. This was a Binns. This same quality comes through at Bloomsbury. According to Philip, recitalists are queuing up to play there for their regular Saturday Buffet Concerts to witness to this quality.
After Philip’s comprehensive introduction we were allowed free rein to explore it for ourselves. Strangely Gordon Reynolds featured prominently in the choice of music played. I wonder why? Perhaps he writes so well for the English romantic sound which this organ unashamedly has. Bach was also represented. For those of us who appreciate such things there are no less than two 32 foot Pedal stops! – a Sub Bass which is an extremely effective Compton polyphone and a Sackbut with half-length resonators. All in all Bloomsbury has an instrument which could very well do duty in a cathedral or concert hall, and is arguably the largest instrument in a Baptist church in the United Kingdom.
Philip Luke and the church were thanked most warmly for their welcome and hard work in coping with an invasion of CLESO folk (sadly only nine of us). A central location at such a venue should have attracted more? I had to leave at 4.30pm but Philip was generously staying on to accommodate those who wanted more time to play this wondrous machine. This was doubly appreciated when we learned he lives in Norfolk and commutes to Bloomsbury every weekend!