David Davies, currently Acting Director of Music at Exeter Cathedral, played an astonishing recital on the recently-restored Brice Seede organ in the James Wyatt Music Room of Powderham Castle.
The organ was originally a single-manual instrument without pedals, suitable for English music of the later 18th century, a repertoire David demonstrated with voluntaries by John Stanley and SS Wesley (one-time organist of Exeter Cathedral).
He reached backwards in time with a 15th century piece by Arnold Schlick, his own arrangement of a set of charming dances by Tylman Susato revealing the beauty of some of the organ’s more gentle qualities, and some French music making striking and dissonant use of mutation stops.
At the other end of the time-scale was a piece which could not have been more current – a magnificent improvisation on the name ‘Powderham’, translating the letters to musical notes, and creating with them a grand French Overture, a gently melodious Andante, the perkiest of Jigs and ending with a fine Fugue. This tour de force of the improviser’s art was the virtuoso highlight of the programme, tinged only with the inevitable regret that the music, once heard, has now gone for ever except, fading, in our memories.
David revealed an entirely different kind of virtuosity in stretching the organ far beyond its apparent limitations. The addition in the 1830s
of a second manual, lacking (for reasons of space and probably expense) a bottom octave, and two octaves of straight, narrow and nowadays non-standard pedals, allowed him to conjure up a large-scale Bach Fantasia, Mozart’s Andante for Musical Clock, and a complete Mendelssohn Sonata (no.2 in C minor). Cameras and a large screen allowed the audience to see as well as hear the wizardry needed to pull off pieces of such scale with techn
ical mastery, deeply-felt musicianship and absorbing communication. His informative but light-hearted spoken introductions added to the delight of an evening, presented to a large audience, including several children, in the uniquely appealing ambience of the Music Room and, during the interval, in front of a log fire in the State Dining Room.
This was as fine a demonstration of the organ’s potential as you could ever hope to experience.