Two generous concerts in one at Peterborough Cathedral

Steven Grahl EMN-140809-153548001
Steven Grahl EMN-140809-153548001

This concert was not only the climax of Peterborough Cathedral’s Summer Music Festival, it was also everything a festive musical event should be! With a first half focusing on works for organ and orchestra, and a second half of music for combined choirs, this was really two generous concerts in one.

The brainchild of Steven Grahl, the cathedral’s Director of Music, the occasion was a celebration of changes recently made to the pitch of the organ. Though it might sound a bit abstruse the re-pitching has had highly practical consequences. Previously it was impossible for the organ to play along with other instruments because of a clash of tuning, but now it can blend happily with any combination of instruments and voices.

The programme began with perhaps the most beautiful work ever written for organ and orchestra, the concerto by the French composer Francis Poulenc. For years he was regarded as a musical clown and mischievous master of what’s facetiously called ‘leg-poulenc.’ Not to mention a musical magpie unashamedly borrowing from other composers. Yet his works are turning out to be among the most enduring of the 20th century.

Does it really matter if the opening chords, magnificently performed by Steven Grahl on the refurbished organ, sound like Bach? Or that the ravishing dotted note string melody, passionately played by the Bristol Ensemble conducted by David Hill, owes something to Faure? Or even that there’s a sequence of descending chords literally lifted from Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony? The point is that all these fit into a musical tapestry which is woven together coherently and colourfully.

Less familiar but highly appropriate to the occasion was Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festiva which soon emerged as a mini-organ concerto in all but name. This taxing score with its welcome moments of sunny lyricism received a highly charged performance from the Bristol players, while Steven Grahl excelled in an organ cadenza played exclusively on the pedals.

After the interval the choristers of the Cathedral Choir, the Youth Choir, the Festival Chorus, and the Peterborough Choral Society took their place on stage. They made a stunning impression with unanimous and powerful singing in Balfour Gardiner’s Evening Hymn again conducted by the tireless and authoritative David Hill.

Their programme of familiar spiritual songs also included the world premiere of Toby Young’s The Way, the Truth, and the Life. Exciting and enjoyable, this accessible score was characterised by near Caribbean rhythmic exuberance, plentiful key change, and a feisty coda for rushing strings with an ending that took everyone by surprise.

By Joe Conway