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By Lois Jones

“IT'S a new instrument in an old case,” said Matthew Martin of the restored organ at the Basilica of Sant Francesc in Palma.
Prior to his performance on Friday evening at the finale of the island's annual “Historic Organ Week,” Martin, who is Assistant Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral said that it was for that reason that really there were no constraints placed on his choice of repertoire by the instrument only recently lovingly restored by master organ builder Gerhard Grenzing. “Bach works very well for me though, on this particular organ,” he added.

It's suitable for a variety of music, he said - early, baroque or romantic. “French baroque also reproduces very well here as does modern French organ music which often has a quieter tone,” Martin said.

The Balearic Islands has a wealth of 17th and 18th century organs in many churches, not just in Palma. Whilst many built during the same period on the mainland of Spain were destroyed in ecclesiastical purges during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, those in the Islands escaped and because of lack of funding for restoration in churches, when Grenzing arrived on Majorca in the 1960s, he found instruments very much in their original condition.

One of the outstanding features of organs in Spain which have escaped the ravages of 19th century “modernisation” are the trumpet stops, and the historic organs in the Balearics are no exception. Martin gave a brief demonstration of their thrilling and brilliantly pitched fanfare effect which needed no other introduction.

As organist, composer and conductor, Matthew Martin is well qualified to make his judgment. Born in 1976 and having graduated from Magdalen College Oxford where he was an organ scholar, Martin then attended the Royal Academy of Music as a post-graduate student and subsequently moved to study in Paris with Marie-Claire Alain.

Martin is becoming increasingly well-known as a composter of choral music and his works are performed by renowned choral groups including the BBC singers. Recent commissions have come from the choirs of Westminster Abbey, Ampleforth Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral. He is currently published by Faber Music in their new Choral Signature series.

Asked how composers who are not organists could be encouraged to write for the organ, Martin said that the problem in enlarging contemporary repertoire is that people who don't play the organ simply don't understand the complexities of the instrument. The pedals, he said, sound an octave lower than they do on the written music score and that unlike the piano, the octave range on the organ manual comes to an unexpected end. Apart from the octave therefore needing to be transposed, many stop changes are required through a piston system, which, according to Martin is easy to use.

Why is it difficult to market the organ and draw the public in to concerts? Historically it has been a very “churchy” instrument, replies Martin and doesn't have the same appeal as a concert hall solo instrument. Some would claim that the performance of the organ is inextricably linked to its surroundings but increasingly, and internationally, there are notable exceptions to these rules. One outstanding example is the organ at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank in London which is currently being restored, but in the United States, and more surprisingly Japan, the organ has undergone a secularisation process and is appealing to a multi-faith audience.

Is there a major difference between audience appreciation elsewhere in Europe and that in the UK? Martin answered that enthusiasm for organ concerts appears to be greater outside the United Kingdom. He believes that the secularisation of society has eroded a choral and organ tradition such as the one with which he grew up at school in Cheltenham. “Even that is disappearing now,” he admitted, adding that “there are not many good organs in the UK. They're hard to find.” Recognising that London always has a good choice of concerts and that Westminster Cathedral has a consistently exciting musical agenda, Martin acknowledged that transposing such enthusiasm to other parts of the country could prove a disappointing challenge: “I recently played the organ at a concert in Huddersfield to a grand total of 40 people,” he said.
Does the use of big screens relaying actions from the organ loft to the audience down below help bridge the gap between performer and listener? Martin said that seeing the organ being played is not essential to some enthusiasts - hearing the music and appreciating the acoustics in a church setting is often more important .Another school of thought suggests that for a younger audience, perhaps not familiar with the structure of an organ its multiple keyboard manuals and pedal installations can be a fascinating introduction to an instrument that has been traditionally “reserved for Sundays” and often remaining out of sight.

What about training? What can be done to offer up-and-coming musicians the chance to learn to compose for the organ. Martin explained that the reality of the present market is that musicians need to get their work published and that in the current environment, there is more demand for choral music than there is for organ work. Many serious composers are completely turned off the organ, said Martin although he acknowledged that he was currently engaged in writing an organ composition for music publishers, Novello.

During his time as Acting Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral in the summer term of 2008, Martin directed a rare and highly acclaimed recording for Hyperion of Victoria's Missa Gaudeamus with the cathedral Lay Clerks. The specialist press gave it rave reviews describing the choral blend as “superb and exquisitely balanced.” Martin, a practical artist, said that common sense needs to dictate organ repertoires. People who have gathered in a church or concert hall to hear well-known classics are not going to be enamoured with discordant contemporary compositions. An agenda has to be tailored to the audience he claimed. Frequently, new repertoire is sandwiched between more familiar pieces so that an audience can savour the past whilst exploring the sounds of the new.

With Matthew Martin's work embracing performing, conducting and composing, he wouldn't be drawn on what he preferred doing but said that each was a completely different skill. Composing clearly demanded his creative talent and a great deal of time. With vast attention to detail crucial to the musical score, nothing could be rushed. Martin claimed that the work of English composers was paramount in his own writing including Benjamin Britten, describing his pieces as “slightly reserved.” Martin spoke pointedly of the responsibility of conducting a choir. Sitting behind the console of an organ was his own choice, but producing music through 16 choristers was a separate professional burden.

Since 2001, Matthew Martin has been the director of the Nave Choir of boys and men as part of the annual Edington Festival of Music. In the 1950s, choral scholars from Kings College Cambridge were inspired to start the festival in this small village on the edge of Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. Martin says many of the great cathedral and collegiate choirs come together to take part in the week's daily services.

MATTHEW Martin's performance in the Basiilica at San Francesc bore out the qualities of the organ which he had described so adequately earlier in the day.

His programme ranged from baroque through to contemporary music, a careful choice which so eminently showed the versatility of the historic instrument.
The introductory piece by late 17th century Portuguese composter, Antonio correa Braga could be described as a “trumpet voluntary” hinting at the classic namesake, now attributed to English composer Jeremiah Clarke, a contemporary of Purcell. Braga's piece showed off the trumpet stops to their best possible effect, with an echoing heraldry which built up to a majesterial fanfare that resounded through the basilica.

The Scherzo from the Suite by Jehan Alain (1911-1940) began in soft and discordant tones. There was something disquieting, even disturbing about the insistent repetition of the main theme. The middle section was louder and faster with pedal work underpinning a mounting sense of “panic” with the rhythm finally fading like an express train into the distance.

Johann Sebastian Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C major was proof of the suitability of the instrument in the basilica to baroque (and particularly Bach's) compositions. Martin marked good time in what was a challenging tempo, blending the counterpoint subtley leaving the theme in the higher octaves uncorrupted.

Listening to Martin's rendition of Paul Hindemith's Allegro and Andentino from his Symphonic Metamorphosis, the audience could be forgiven for forgetting that they were listening to a solo organ performance. Martin had explained that the musical score was in fact a transcription of Hindemith's original orchestration and the instrument in the Basilica was cleverly able to reproduce the sounds of individual orchestral instruments.

Nicholas Grigny's (1672-1703) “Pangua linga” had all the hallmarks of a “Handelesque” composition with the fugue using muted trumpet tones which immitated period instruments. Strong pedal work pushed the tempo to a faster pace. There was something echoing “a whiter shade of pale” in the Recit du chant which ended on a particularly long chord.

Siegfried Karg-Elert's (1877-1933) Rigaudon alla burla in E startled at first with a syncopated rhythm, moving on to other irregular beats. Clever modulation bridged a musical gap between baroque, romantic and contemporary music.

Jeanne Demessieux' (1921-1968) Te Deum had a majestic, discordant introduction, played almost entirely on the second manual combined with strong pedal movement which was not easy on the ear. The middle section was much gentler with the major key establishing itself more strongly prior to a crescendo leading to strident chords blaring out “We Praise Thee” in true Te Deum style. The 300 strong audience were clearly delighted with Matthew Martin's performance and appreciated his sense of humour when at one moment in between items, two mobile phones burst into life in the basilica and he made a hasty improvisiation of the Nokia tune. He was rewarded with spontaneous applause.