St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane
October 25, 2018

In the elevated world of organ music, the symphonies by French composer Louis Vierne (1870-1937) represent the Everest of the repertoire. They are the apogee of a semi-blind musician who was organist at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris for over 40 years, and who died of a heart attack in the middle of a recital.

These gigantic works – six of them composed over 30 years – require enormous stamina from both organist and audience.

A small band of devotees gathered early Friday evening in the cavernous expanse of St John’s Cathedral, nestled somewhat incongruously amidst the concrete and glass jungle of the Brisbane CBD. We had come to witness – ‘hear’ hardly seems the appropriate word! – the first of three recitals by the visiting British-Australian virtuoso, Joseph Nolan, currently Organist and Master of Music at St George’s Cathedral in Perth. Mercifully, Dr Nolan chose to present only two of the symphonies in each of his three programs. Each symphony lasts around 30 minutes. This concert featured Symphonies No 1 and No 2. To have presented more in a single sitting would have reached beyond saturation point.

These dense scores are truly gorgeous and, at times, even glorious, almost overwhelming to experience. Imagine the formal spinning of Cesar Franck’s multi-movements mixed with the exuberant flair of Charles Widor’s toccatas. There are also hints of other French masters, Jean Langlais and even the early Messiaen as well.

The kaleidoscope array of colours of the Great Organ and booming acoustic of the Cathedral are tailor-made for this kind of ultra-Romantic, early 20th century French music. Indeed, maintains Joseph Nolan, this organ is the best of its kind in Brisbane, possibly in all of Australia. (Local enthusiasts are already anticipating two recitals by the Cathedral’s Assistant Director of Music, Andrej Kouznetsov: a concert of works by Peeters, Jongen and Elgar, at 6pm on Saturday 17 November, which will be followed by a rare performance of Messiaen’s monumental Christmas cycle La Nativité du Seigneur at 7pm on Sunday 9 December.)

The Great Organ (Norman & Beard, London) was installed in St John’s Cathedral in 1910. Initially, it was a three-manual instrument with 30 speaking stops. Further additions were made progressively to 1924 with a major overhaul in 1972. There was a complete re-design and re-build in 2008-10 by the Brisbane firm of W.J.Simon Pierce. This brought the instrument to its current state of four manuals with 82 speaking stops and an electro-pneumatic & electro-magnetic action operating over 4,500 pipes. An additional brace of pistons gave the instrument much needed flexibility for its demanding regimen of public performances.

After years of individual recitals, St John’s launched its regular series of organ recitals in 2007. This arrangement lasted until 2014 when major damage – storms and floods being a persistent threat in Brisbane – caused water to flow into the cathedral’s roof resulting in considerable damage to the organ. Five years and ten million dollars later, the organ was repaired and in July 2018 was restored to full health.

The organ console sits high above the Quire, to the left of the congregation- audience. A CCTV system allows the audience to view all the operations of the organist, his hands sliding over four manuals, and even his feet on the pedals. The audience was encouraged to move around and experience Vierne’s torrential rushes from various aural and visual perspectives.

Joseph Nolan’s return to Brisbane, his first since 2015, is the highlight of the current season of organ recitals at St John’s. Having recorded these works and performed them as cycles several times already, he has clearly mastered their intricacies and found ways to unravel their textual densities. What impressed this onetime organist most was his capacity to project a passage seamlessly over several manuals whilst managing to create a sense of accretive growth through myriads of registration changes. As viewed on the CCTV system, the agility of fingers and feet was simply dazzling.

Amazing, also, that his assistant did nothing more than turn pages (in a couple of instances, he shuffled two scores along the stand). Pre-set combinations aside, Nolan’s capacity to perform without registration assistance was extraordinary. Likewise the variety of stops deployed: from turgid diapasons to cheeky clarinets, from blaring brass to chortling flutes, from organo pleno with its Spanish trumpets and thunderous 32-foot pedals to ethereal evocations, all with barely a blink separating them. At times, the climaxes were literally thunderous, with a huge thunderstorm breaking during the second symphony.

The pairing of Vierne’s first two symphonies, his Symphony No.1 in d minor, Op. 14 (1899) with the Symphony No 2 in E Minor, Op.20 (1903), was instructive. Though separated by only a few years, the second shows significant advances on its predecessor, which had been strongly influenced by Widor. The second , hailed by Debussy as ‘a most remarkable work’, shows Vierne evolving his signature style, flexing ‘his compositional muscles’ as David Gammie wrote in his illuminating program notes.

Following Franck’s structural model, each symphony has several movements, with welcome contrasts of darkness and density broken by lighter and more airy movements. At times, these sounded almost balletic in flippancy and texture. The ingratiating melody of the Scherzo third movement of the Second Symphony, for instance, could have been lifted from one of the scores of an early Hollywood great.

This was an assured and deeply satisfying experience. In the hands of an acclaimed and highly persuasive advocate, it will surely help restore appreciation of a genre of French romantic music that seems to have slipped from fashion and taste in recent years.

The series continues on Saturday afternoon at 6pm when Joseph Nolan plays the third and fifth symphonies, and on Sunday afternoon at 2pm when he plays the fourth and sixth symphonies.

In the blissful cool of St John’s Cathedral, these concerts deserve to be thronged by large audiences.

Joseph Nolan performs two other recitals at St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane on Saturday October 26 at 6pm and Sunday October 28 at 2pm