Sunday evening’s recital in the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields saw St Patrick’s Cathedral in Ballarat filled with the resplendent sounds of three trumpets (Joel Brennan, Mark Fitzpatrick and Yoram Levy) and organ (Anthony Halliday) in what has become a common pairing for the Festival.
The trumpeters made the best use of the space of the cathedral, opening the programme with a sprightly reading of C.P.E. Bach’s March for the Ark, a reasonably pedestrian work from a composer most at home in the slightly wayward. They moved to the organ gallery for Brennan’s own arrangements of selections from Handel, the site too of Franceschini’s Sonata in D major for two trumpets and Telemann’s Concerto in D major for three trumpets. The Handel and the Telemann both gave ample opportunity for brilliant playing that a little too often verged on the merely loud. The Telemann, not one of his finer works, also suffered from something of an imbalance between the accompanying organ (standing in for a string orchestra) as well as some issues of the matching of intonation between the trumpets on the one hand and the organ on the other. The Franceschini is both a better work and was better played, with solid dialogue between the two solo instruments and sensitive, silvery playing.
Joel Brennan, on a flugelhorn, also played Harry Sdraulig’s 2014 Ballade from the gallery. This is an exceptionally fine work, and was played with enormous subtlety by the soloist, who conjured an introspective tone from his instrument. It is hard to give a proper impression of Sdraulig’s style, which seems to be a highly personal take on the music of the English Pastoralists. This is one of the more interesting contemporary works I have heard recently, idiomatically written for both organ and flugelhorn and with more than enough interest to sustain its length. Sdraulig’s is a compositional voice well worth keeping an ear on. The trumpeters (this time from the sanctuary) also played Britten’s Fanfare for St Edmundsbury and, although not quite from the three different locations the composer expected, the individual trumpeters carved out spaces for each of their voices, musically and tonally.
Anthony Halliday, a Festival regular and organist of the choir of St Francis’ Melbourne, contributed three solo works. He began with Joseph Haydn’s Piece for a musical clock, a pretty vapid piece that he nonetheless injected with lashings of bonhomie. Halliday also played the toccata from Duruflé’s Suite Op. 5 and the finale from Saint-Säens’ “Organ” symphony in his own transcription. The Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival is practically alone in Australia in championing the music of the pipe organ, and it regularly presents concerts in which one gets to hear works of the symphonic organ literature on more-or-less the right kinds of instruments in more-or-less the right kinds of surroundings.
Halliday is without question a highly competent organist in these large-scale works, equal to the technical demands of this music and with a fine ability to lay bare the structure of a complex and somewhat diffuse work such as the Duruflé even if he too often resorts to a staccato articulation or, in his drive to convey the motive energy of a work, too often refuses to let it breathe a little, the total effect sometimes verging on the onslaught rather than the guided exposition of these works. If his Duruflé was a successful reading, his Saint-Säens was less so: somehow the transcription seemed to reveal just how barren a work this really is, and Halliday seemed to lose momentum after the instrument suffered a malfunction halfway through.
I commend the Festival’s commitment to the organ, but the organ of St Patrick’s clearly needs work both at the level of mechanism and at the level of tuning. The larger registrations that Halliday needed to deploy in the symphonic works he chose to play were almost unlistenably out of tune.