Rubislaw Organ Recitals

Rubislaw Church Building is being used for the remainder of 2023 for a series of Organ Recitals which are open to all. The building is not being retained for worship for Fountainhall Church.

The organ at Rubislaw Church is a 3-manual Willis, originally built in 1890 by Henry (Father) Willis as a 2-manual with tracker action. In 1926 it was enlarged to 3 manuals by his grandson, Henry Willis III.  There were minor changes made 1937 and 1952 and again in 1967 it was cleaned and overhauled with tonal changes by J. W. Walker & Sons, Ltd of Ruislip.In 1995 a massive rebuild was done by Sandy Edmonstone of Perth with David McGinnigle (FRCO), then organist of Rubislaw Church as Advisor.  The organ, particularly the Great and Swell Division, was changed to better accommodate a more grand French sound and a modern solid-state piston capture system was installed. The choir division was increased with Father Willis pipework from a redundant church in Glasgow and a lovely flute of 18th century vintage, the latter considered one of the most beautiful stops on the instrument.


Celebrating Rubislaw's Father Willis Organ Concert Series 2023

Dr JOHN P. KITCHEN MBE | Friday 8th December 2023 | By ALAN COOPER

This final organ recital in the series of ten was given by the amazingly brilliant Dr John Kitchen. All ten recitals have been thoroughly accomplished. I hope I do not upset any of the other nine performers if I write that this final recital went way beyond what we had already heard. Some of this resulted from the choice of music that Dr Kitchen had chosen to play. It was a broad sweep of pieces from the seriousness of Handel, Bach or Pachelbel to the early dance music of Susato, colourful pictorial music by Cecilia McDowall or Samuel Sebastian Wesley, equally colourful and happily entertaining pieces by Michael Thomson and an absolutely crazy Toccata by the Norwegian composer Egil Hovland. Quite a few of these pieces had been chosen because they had been played on this very organ in the past. The Handel Overture and Holsworthy Church Bells by Wesley were performed by Albert Lister Peace (1844 -1912) in Rubislaw on 28th November 1890. Dr Kitchen himself gave a recital in Rubislaw Church on 17th September 1995 when he played the pieces by Susato, and the Chorale variations by Pachelbel. Can I mention here that Dr Kitchen gave us a very special encore, his own variations on Auld Lang Syne. This was glorious. He even got the audience to sing along at the end. Since sadly, it is possible that this was the last music that will be heard on this organ in Rubislaw Church which is now closed, the tune was a fitting farewell to the instrument which has delighted audiences throughout 2023. Many thanks to Allan Bicket and his team of helpers. 

I was familiar with the opening piece in the recital, La Mourisque and Basse Danse Bergeret by Tylman Susato since it was regularly played by Aberdeen’s Early Music Ensemble, the Kincorth Waits conducted by my good friend Dr Charles V. Foster. John Kitchen’s version however was more extravagantly colourful. Absolutely suitable for playing on this fine organ. Dr Kitchen really made it shine. Middle and upper manuals gave us orchestral variety of sound. There were rich chords, a busy right hand and a wonderful crescendo of an ending with pedals ringing out.

Handel’s Overture in Samson was gleamingly bright with a dance-like forward sense of flow, in a marvellously rich and lavish performance. The Minuet with flutes had a delicious delicacy.

Dr Kitchen informed us that Bach had produced a number of Chorale Preludes based on the tune Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. Today he performed two of those, BWV 659 and BWV 661. These, he told us would be very different, and indeed they were. The first with lower manual and pedals at the opening had an almost playful quality. The tune was made to sing out as a solo as the piece progressed. It was very attractive. The second Chorale Prelude was a demonstration of Bach’s finest and most joyous contrapuntal writing, brilliantly played, of course.

The short Toccata in D by Pachelbel played as an introduction to the composer’s Chorale Variations on ‘Alle Menschen müssen sterben’ was less extravagant with hands close together on one manual but nevertheless with considerable complexity of fingering, very attractive. The Variations were marvellously varied, the organ having almost orchestral variety from delicate flutes on the upper manual, reed stops, with the tune and the right hand having busy almost capering music. The finale was nothing short of glorious.

What followed was the more modern piece by Cecilia McDowall, Church bells beyond the stars.

Dr Kitchen demonstrated how McDowall had written a certain rhythmic irregularity into the passages of bell sounds. I reckon that would be realistic if the sounds of the bells were created by people tugging on ropes. It was amazing. Absolutely pictorial from the tinkling of smaller bells to the fearsome tolling sounds at the end of the piece. 

Holsworthy Church Bells by S. S. Wesley was overall a more gentle piece as if the bell sounds were coming to us across a lovely sunlit pastoral landscape.

There followed three pieces by Michael Thomson who used to be organist at St Machar’s Cathedral.  The first piece, The Bard’s Ceremonial did indeed have a celebratory quality and its sense of Scottishness was quite pronounced. The second piece Whirly-granny refers to a kind of spinning chimney cowl. Look up and you will see some of these on older Aberdeen buildings. This was a strathspey with more than a touch of humour.

Mike Thomson’s final piece, On the square: quick march took me back to when I was a small boy and television had not yet come to Aberdeen. I used to listen to the radio and in the school holidays I would enjoy a programme called Worker’s Playtime. They would sometimes have an organist possibly Sandy McPherson. He was a theatre organist and I remember that Mike Thomson was keen on the theatre organ. I once heard him play on the organ in the Capitol cinema. That organ is still there, hidden behind a wall, but some silly so and so cut through all the wires so it would be almost impossible to get it going again. The point I am making is that Mike Thomson’s On the square would have sounded absolutely at home on Worker’s Playtime.

The final piece in the official programme was Egil Hovland’s Toccata on the hymn tune Now thank we all our God. Wow! Now, this really was something else. Virtuosity hardly begins to describe what John Kitchen achieved. Hands feet and everything went flying everywhere. It was modern sounding, crazy really, but very attractive too. I only hope that other organists in the audience do not decide to just give up after witnessing this!

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Celebrating Rubislaw's Father Willis Organ Concert Series 2023

NICHOLAS WEARNE | Friday 24th November 2023 | By ALAN COOPER

Friday’s Celebrity Organ Recital, the ninth of ten, on the Father Willis Organ in Rubislaw Church was given by Nicholas Wearne. He was introduced by Allan Bicket. He drew our attention to the breadth of Wearne’s musical prowess as a world class recitalist, (the programme note mentions Japan, the USA and Germany) and a uniquely gifted teacher. The programme note also mentions his career as an accompanist and continuo player, working with, among other notable ensembles, the Dunedin Consort, with which Aberdeen audiences will be familiar. He is currently Senior Tutor in Organ Studies at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

Since we are fast approaching Advent, which starts this year on Sunday 3rd December, Nicholas Wearne chose the first three pieces in his recital with that in mind. They were based on Hymns for Advent.

The first was from the Overture to the Oratorio St Paul (Op. 36) by Mendelssohn. This was originally composed for full orchestra, but William Thomas Best had produced an arrangement for organ which we were about to hear. The tune Wachet auf composed by Philipp Nicolai (1556 – 1608) but made famous by J. S. Bach is at the heart of the Overture. It began softly, but Wearne gave it delicate touches of crescendo which suggested the orchestral origins of Mendelssohn’s writing. In fact Wearne’s whole performance of the piece captured that idea brilliantly. Instrumental solos and passages suggesting different sections of the orchestra were all there. The composer’s romantic harmonies were richly played and I felt the spirit of J. S. Bach present in the music. There were dazzling finger runs as the piece progressed. These were picked up sensationally by Wearne’s pedal work. As he suggested in his introduction, we travelled from quiet darkness towards a dazzling blaze of organ light.

The second piece was by J. S. Bach himself, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV 659. The heartbeat of the music was in the walking pedal part, but Wearne gave the music a delightful forward flowing almost dance-like feel. I was particularly delighted with his choice of stop, nazard with tremulant? for the tune on the middle manual. It was song-like and absolutely delightful.

The Chorale Prelude on St. Thomas (Lo He comes, with clouds descending) by Parry had close hand harmonies within which were, complex chiming counterpoints, sparklingly well played.

The second part of the recital was extra special. It contained music by Haydn and Mozart that one does not often hear performed live. This music was originally produced to be played not by live performers but by mechanical devices. Haydn’s Flötenuhrstücke consisted of three short pieces using flute stops. The first used the highest and most delicate of these, gradually moving towards richer fuller sounds. These were played with the proper sense of precision. Mozart’s Fantasie in f minor also had three sections. It opened strongly and then gave us a splendid fugal section. Quieter flutes, dancing pedals and then a powerful virtuoso finale made this an impressive showpiece to hear.

George Thalben-Ball (did you know he was an Australian?) had unearthed a piece by Michael Christian Festing, a contemporary of Handel. As Wearne informed us, Thalben-Ball’s arrangement was more 1920’s than baroque. I felt there was more than a touch of humour in this arrangement. Thalben-Ball had obviously been thinking of this music as entertainment. It worked rather well. This was followed soon after by Handel in the Strand by Percy Grainger, almost theatre organ music and perfect entertainment. It was full of variety of organ colour and Wearne made it romp splendidly along. 

Before that however, we heard the Adagio in E by Frank Bridge. I loved the way hands walked together in sync over the middle manual. There were moments of poignant quiet playing but the music fairly blossomed forth in the middle. 

All too soon we had arrived at the final work in the recital. If it opened with music by Mendelssohn that exploited the organ as a kind of orchestra, that is exactly what French organists like Widor, armed with the glorious Aristide Cavaillé-Coll organs as in Saint-Sulpice aimed to do. The Finale to his Symphony No. 6 for organ was magnificent. On Friday evening it received an awesome resounding performance!

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Celebrating Rubislaw's Father Willis Organ Concert Series 2023

ANDREW FORBES | Friday 15th September 2023 | By ALAN COOPER

This was the eighth in the series of ten celebrity organ recitals on the Rubislaw Church Father Willis Organ. I had read up on Andrew Forbes, Director of Music at Glasgow Cathedral. I knew he would be good. On my way to the recital, I thought, ‘This is sure to be good, but will there be anything new about it? We have already had seven top rate performers who have pressed all the surprise buttons. Can there be any more eye-openers?’ How wrong I was. Here was another top-ranking performer who had chosen a programme of music that was as sure to amaze as much as to delight the audience.

Andrew Forbes opened his recital with Mendelssohn’s Overture to the Oratorio ‘St Paul’ in an arrangement for organ by W. T. Best. It begins with a slow hymn-like harmonisation of the tune Wachet Auf. Forbes shaped it nicely with attention to variation in dynamics. This led to splendidly flowing Bachian counterpoint where the music projected a feeling of seriousness and portent. The music demanded and got spirited pedal work. Overall as it developed, the music began to sound quite orchestral with the use of different manuals. This was something that we were to hear more of in the final part of the recital.

Simpler in some senses but not in others was the next piece, the Fantasia in C by William Byrd. There were delicate flute sounds on the top manual, delightful in ornamentation. The music was enriched on the middle manual, a flowing performance with fast runs and lively dancing fingers.

Andrew Forbes told us that the composer of the next piece, Grace-Evangeline Mason had dedicated Where the Birds Sing to all those touched by the Northern Irish Troubles. I discover that the music was inspired by the opening stanza of Spring Quiet, a poem by Christina Rossetti (1830 – 1894).


Gone were but the Winter,

Come were but the Spring,

I would go to a covert

Where the birds sing:

The birds were indeed singing in the complex fingering on the top manual – a pétillant passage of music. The birds were singing even more clearly from the middle manual. The music grew in contrapuntal complexity with a fine melody on the pedals. Here again the organ achieved an orchestral richness in this heartfelt music.

We moved on from a composer brought up in the West Midlands to the celebrated French composer Maurice Duruflé, a favorite of Andrew Forbes, he told us. This was the Prelude and Fugue on the name of ALAIN. Forbes demonstrated how the letters could be used as a five note musical theme. Within the piece there was also a melody by Jehan Alain (1911 – 1940) himself. From Alain’s Litanies in fact. The music began with the organ playing in whispering tones with dancing hands and gentle pedals. The Prelude was overall a light-hearted optimistic piece played with sparkle by Andrew Forbes in dizzying trills. The theme from Litanies was explored and worked on and after a brief pause we were into the Fugue. The technical seriousness of the fugue was certainly all there but above it soared attractive melodic content. This was happy music and as it became more and more rich, Andrew Forbes made it swing. Of course, this was not jazz, but…

The American composer from Vermont, Nico Muhly sounded like good fun as Forbes described him. His piece, The Revd Mustard His Installation Prelude has nothing at all to do with Cluedo. Actually that was Colonel Mustard. The Revd James Mustard was a friend of the composer. He was Rector of the Church of St Mary the Virgin in East Barnet. Andrew Forbes told us to expect a piece full of perpetual motion and that is indeed what we got. The top part of the music was a complex twiddle-dance with a slow melody moving forward beneath. It was a real showpiece for organ and like its composer, good fun.

Andrew Forbes told us that he had chosen the next piece for a bit of relaxation. Well, surely not. You don’t relax playing J. S. Bach. The title of the Chorale Prelude An Wasserflüssen Babylon translates as By the Rivers of Babylon. The clarinet stop on the lower manual was indeed absolutely delicious.

The final piece in the recital included the final three movements out of six from Organ Symphony No.1 Op. 14 by Louis Vierne. Once again I was delighted to hear some of this music having spent much time translating into English La Musique D’Orgue Française de Jehan Titelouze à Jehan Alain for the late Duncan Johnstone at Aberdeen University Music when I was in my early twenties. I read the detailed descriptions of this music without hearing it and not many recitalists choose to play it. But thank you Andrew Forbes for choosing to do so.

The fourth movement Allegro Vivace once again had those marvellous dancing hands and fingers. Melody stood out clearly and the organ as orchestra was there in abundance: flutes, reeds and bass changing from one to another. The Andante was quiet as promised. Strings possibly then woodwinds and horn lower down? The Finale was marvellously exciting. Loud, fanfare-like and celebratory. A superb conclusion to a first-rate recital full of new music and fabulous new sound blends throughout. Just two to go. Nicholas Wearne on Friday 24th November and the amazing John Kitchen on Friday 8th December. Not to be missed!

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Celebrating Rubislaw's Father Willis Organ Concert Series 2023

PAUL STUBBINGS | Friday 18th August 2023 | By ALAN COOPER

The seventh in the series of Celebrity Organ Recitals on the Father Willis Organ in Rubislaw Church was given by Paul Stubbings a renowned organist whose career was launched at the Royal Parish Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields where he was Organist & Master of the Music. Between 2012 and 2022 he was Director of Music at St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh. He is currently based in Kent.

The first item in his recital programme was The Hovingham Sketches (1974). This is a series of eleven short concert pieces for organ brought together some 50 years ago and representing eleven well known composers of organ music in 1974. This was a musical picture book of organ music in the years up to the seventies of the last century, rather wonderful to hear in educational terms. However, with Friday’s colourful and varied performance by Paul Stubbings it was also a marvellously entertaining journey through the sometimes astonishing sound possibilities and performance capabilities of the Rubislaw Willis Organ. For instance, I was astonished to hear that the pedals could be made to sound as high flutes! Allow me to make brief mention of each of the wonderfully colourful works in this first section. It opened with Canzonetta by Arthur J. Pritchard, a gentle piece with sunny counterpoint and an approachable melodic content. Puck’s Shadow by Sir Richard Popplewell lived up to its whimsical fairyland title. Light sounding flutes, delicate yet prickly music and there were those amazingly high pedals. Trio by William Lloyd Webber (he has two more famous musical sons) had rich harmonic breadth, was pleasantly melodic with fine pedal work. Bernard Rose’s Chimes had delightful little touches of chords which ran delicately through the piece. Francis Jackson with gentle pedals and free running flutes lived up graphically to its title “the sweet rivelet”. Scherzetto for the flutes by Eric Thiman sounded almost fanfare-like at its opening. Here was happy luminous music. Harold Darke is famous, with me at least, for his delicious setting of In the Bleak Mid-Winter. His piece, An Interlude, had similar seductive harmonic writing. Quite an extensive piece, it was superbly well shaped. Another work entitled simply Trio was by Peter Hurford. This was fast tintinnabulating music that added a sense of refreshment to the performance. Here was Scherzetto again, this time by Arthur Wills. There was dancing pedal work with edgy yet still attractive harmonies, a rhythmically intriguing piece. Sir George Thalben Ball had offered up a piece entitled Edwardia. It had full-voiced harmonic writing. It opened warmly leading into splendidly bright music before returning to richness and warmth. Now already we were at the final piece suitably entitled Epilogue. This was by Herbert Howells. Strong, loud and powerful, it was impressively celebratory, a perfect conclusion to Paul Stubbing’s amazingly educational and wonderfully entertaining journey through the finest organ concert music of the 1970’s and through every musical nook and cranny of the glorious Rubislaw Church Willis organ. For me it was a splendid eye opener, or should I say ear opener.

I have recently been at two earlier organ recitals, this time in St Machar’s Cathedral where French style symphonic organ music was performed. I was delighted that for his next piece Paul Stubbings had chosen Choral no. 1 in E by César Franck. The use of the television picture of the performer was a great help in allowing us to see how the performer was able to give us that sensation of the organ as a kind of orchestra in this piece. The use of upper and middle manuals creating solo groups and accompanying instrumental sections, and sometimes actual solos, trumpet for example. Woodwinds or even strings were all there. How fascinating! It was also important to watch how dynamics were varied in the most telling way just as would happen in a real orchestra with a conductor. Here the performer was the conductor. A marvellous overall performance.

There were three pieces by Joseph Bonnet. Elfes with its twiddly flutes suggested the mysterious lights of willow the wisp, a splendidly graphic piece. Romance sans paroles was made up of delicate song-like phrases, while Variations de Concert was a marvellous showpiece full of variety in dynamics.

There were three sections in Marcel Dupré’s from Le Tombeau de Titelouze. Te lucis ante terminum flowed beautifully and was thoughtful. In Iste confessor I was impressed by the performers flowing and muscular left hand work. The final section, Placare Christe servulis was another fantastic showpiece with both hands and pedals working furiously. This was sure to earn Paul Stubbings his tsunami of applause, which it certainly did. We were rewarded with a special encore, an organ arrangement of a Ukrainian folksong which Paul Stubbings had entitled Chanson Triste. If there were to be a 2023 or upwards new set of Hovingham Sketches this would be a fine composition to be included, would it not?

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Review concert 30 June 2023 / Robin Bell