‘The University of Birmingham has a fine new organ, splendidly displayed in this recording by Henry Fairs’ The Observer 6 August 2017
This is the first recording of the new Garnier organ in the Elgar Concert Hall of Birmingham University. It is played by the organ’s curator, Henry Fairs. He is Head of Organ Studies at Birmingham Conservatoire and was closely involved with the installation of the Garnier organ. A well-chosen programme demonstrates the organ, and its companion continuo organ, as well as some impressive playing by Fairs. He opens and closes with major Bach works, the better-known opening Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue (BWV 564) given a subtly individual reading that adds interest without approaching the mannerisms of some organists who feel the need to do something different. An example is performing the sprightly fugue on a massive chorus based on a 16′ manual reed. The lesser-known concluding Praeludium in C (BWV 566a), which might originally have been in E major) is given a similarly grand interpretation.
Bruhns Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland is played in its more authentic version without the plethora of French-style ornaments that were added later. Fairs builts to a climax during the dance-like third section, reducing the sound to a Quintadena and gentle flutes for the last section, an attractive alternative to the more usual ff final section.
Two contemporary pieces follow. The title piece, Versus, by Franz Danksagmüller (b. 1969), was commissioned for the opening of this organ in 2014. It consists of five Verses on the Chorale Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott, and is played on the small five-stop meantone ‘continuo’ organ position in front of the main organ, with the player facing the audience. As well as exploring the meantone temperament, various other organ effects are used including disturbing the stability of the wind supply with cluster chords.
Via Crucis (1979) by Jon Laukvik is an interlinked sequence of meditations of the Lutheran chorale Christ lag in Todesbanden. After a climactic third section representing the great multitude, the chorale appears complete in the fourth movement, followed by a frenetic dance representing the dividing of garments. The words from the cross are more meditative before the outburst of the final blessing and hope for the resurrection. a very effective piece, even if it is rather too easy to pick out bits clearly inspired by composers like Dupré, Messiaen, Alain, and Eben.
Schumann’s Four Sketches for Pedal Piano transfer well to the organ, although there might have been other pieces from this era that explored the slightly more romantic elements of the new organ design.
Henry Fairs’ playing is excellent, and the organ is a valuable addition to an increasingly impressive organ department at Birmingham University.
Andrew Benson Wilson