I have had such an interesting evening ....
It all started yesterday when I received a note through the letterbox of my quaint eighteenth-century East London dwelling. From the scrolled decoration on the edges of the envelope, and from the gilded crest on the back, I immediately knew that this missive hailed from none other than our great friend Nobilissime The Count Paulo Pauloni, the greatest organ virtuoso of our age, at present (as you know) resident in West London where he has been studying for many years at the Abbey of the Mauve Thought in the Goldhawk Road.
I snatched the intriguing post from the doormat ('GO AWAY' written in large letters thereon), laughingly tossed aside a handful of bills and letters from gentlemen in chambers, and took the important remaining mail into the conservatory to devour it under a good light. Oh joy! Hastily written, but from the great man himself: 'Come! I play, tomorrow, it will be SUPERBO!' - and an address.
Aha! I thought. The maestro is indeed to make one of his rare appearances!
I immediately rang my publishers and cancelled lunch the following day (these things do drag on so), put aside the hundred-and-one little tasks that occupy the day, and reached for the A-Z map of London; for, as you may already have guessed, I was not going to turn down an opportunity to hear Pauloni on an occasion of his own recommending - indeed I would have been an idiot to do so. Close examination of the pages with a strong glass revealed that St. Frideswide's Notting Hill was at the end of a grand crescent on the smart side of Ladbrooke Grove. I immediately set about making preparations for the journey.
Thus it was that early this evening I found myself in what Count Pauloni engagingly describes as my 'barouche' - a car of considerable age and beauty left to me by my Auntie Ellen and used as my main conveyance when I am in town. Bowling along the Western Avenue Extension at 75 miles per hour (I do not exaggerate; M. Citroen could do a fine job even in 1955; had it not been for the howling of the LH front wheel-bearing I would have been encouraged to try for 76 mph) - I eagerly anticipated the concert. Paulo Pauloni, as you know, is the only man on this planet who can hold a candle at the organ to ..... to the organ at .... no, let me start again (not least on account of the uneasy juxtaposition of metaphor that marred that last attempt) .... well, how DOES one describe the great Pauloni? Appointed as organist at Sienna Cathedral at the age of five, kissed by His Holiness at six, engaged to Princess Adelie of Andorra at seven (how tragic that her untimely death has led him to a life of devotion and celibacy....) .... the list of his triumphs is beyond recall and in any case the Pauloni phenomenon has been reported widely in the press. And to find him playing, on a warm breezy evening in late summer, in, of all places, W11! - well this was a great event, not on any account to be missed! And to be advised of it in person by the artist - what an honour!
There was naturally a considerable hubbub round the building when I got there, but I found that I was able to park right in front of the porch, after moving a few plastic cones that someone had foolishly left in the road. A gloomy little church from the end of the first wave of the ecclesiastical boom in the nineteenth century - about 1845, and ordered from a catalogue. I went in, waved aside the requests for alms from impoverished local residents, and looked around. Ah yes - those prefabricated triangular roof trusses - I have seen them a dozen times before: in those days you could order them from Wipple's along with the cassocks and surplices and the 'Empire' brand communion wine. And, on the west gallery, stood an equally gloomy little organ. I racked my brains to see if I could recognise the builder. Thanks to the work I have recently done on the subject (cf. Bicknell S. - 'Certain Patterns of Stencilled Decoration on Organs by Provincial Builders', BIOS Journal Vol 26 pp76-144), I at once realised that I was standing in front of an early work of James Jepson Binns of Leeds. My surprised exclamation of his name may have surprised one or two standing near, who fell awkwardly onto a card-table stacked with programmes, but all was soon put to rights and I took my seat at a vantage point where I could see both the audience and the performer, several other people kindly moving back a row so that I could do so.
I had just enough time to scan the notes before the appointed time for the start, and was able at last to understand why we were all assembled. The church, standing slap bang in the middle of Holland Park (Absolutely Fabulous territory, to those of you who are up to date with British TV), was a miracle of modern fundraising effort. The organ had just emerged with all its Yorkshire bluff restored at the hands of Messrs. Arbuthnot & Pew, the well known builders established at Tottenham Court in 1794 and now in premises off the Addison Road. The organist of the church was a wealthy local resident, philanthropist and connoisseur, Mr. Josiah Greatorex, who had had the good fortune to study with Pauloni at Sienna. All the links were explained - the great Pauloni was leaving the Hammersmith Hermitage to play informally before friends. He would come, he would play for pleasure and for the art, he would mingle with the people. Mr. Greatorex, his former pupil, would graciously stand aside for the evening, allowing the bench at which he presided to be sat on by ......
My reverie was interrupted by a few words of welcome from the Rector (a double barrelled name - something like Sharpe-Hatchett or Sanders-Porcelain), who made us feel quite at home, pointed out the deputy Mayor of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (I had noticed him, in fact, on account of the fact that he was wearing a heavy chain of office which tinkled when he laughed), and encouraged us to enjoy hospitality offered by the church during the interval and afterwards, but to pay for any second or subsequent glass of wine and not to leave canapes in our pew on leaving. After this humdrum interlude we began.
I need not describe to you something which you all know so well - the astonishing experience of being in the same auditorium as a master of the art. They once spoke of Sarasate, of the reclusive Alkan, of Busoni; but today - you need only glance at 'Hello' magazine - they talk of Pauloni. And of course there are those who are outraged - there was the famous occasion when the entire Academie Francaise walked out of his concert at Notre Dame, and of course Pauloni's crippling lawsuit against the German Society of Musicologists is famous, and there are many more similar incidents. However, the Count's calling is to a much wider audience - that Latin blood! - his is a culture where every street-urchin whistles Aida and every laundry-woman is in love with Caruso! This is classical music as it is enjoyed by the greatest number of people; serious art open to all comers, for their delight and wonder, and it is also the most noble gesture imaginable by a man of such talent.
The music unfolded like a double damask napkin. The first half was no mere warming-up exercise, indeed it was already apparent in the Bach fugue that the organ was not quite able to match the maestro in health and efficiency - though in truth it could hardly be expected that an instrument built in 1890 could have been made to accommodate such a devastating technique. I listened entranced, scarcely believing that an instrument of such an ordinary (though sturdy) kind could be made to utter such bewitching sounds. I cannot begin to recall the myriad details of his renderings, but I can tell you that I saw Elgar afresh, I met Antonin Dvorak as a close friend (and wondered whether he really did write that unresolved final chord so long ago), discovered yet another aspect of the mastery of Bach, delighted in the gentle whimsy of John Stanley (accompanied by a nightingale which happened to be singing in the crescent outside), and reminded myself again NEVER to go to an opera by Wagner (I know I may have enemies in this respect but I really do think Tannhauser is the most dreadful rubbish). I hasten to add - in respect of this last item - that whatever the calibre of the music it is of course notoriously difficult in arrangement for the organ, and Pauloni's breathtaking despatch of his own arrangement of the Overture left the audience roaring for more and dealt some serious damage to my sustained prejudice against German Romantic Art.
After a most intense and exhausting first half we were more than grateful for the wine offered by the church (not 'Empire' brand, I was pleased to note). I overheard many enthusiastic remarks, one gentleman saying to a friend: 'Well, it certainly beats *my* manual dexterity at the cottage upright!'. Twenty minutes later it was a somewhat more talkative and excitable audience that pressed back into the pews and occasional seating.
We enjoyed more Elgar. In Vierne's Claire de Lune I gazed at the tastefully dimmed electroliers in the chancel and imagined they were so many little moons - though in practice in this part of London the heavens are rarely visible through the fog. Oh! - and I should say that the organ acquitted itself excellently - no untoward creaks or clatters, only one duff note on the Clarionet, though naturally no voice of great distinction beyond a well characterised Harmonic Flute. Well, that is not quite true, for this was my first encounter with that rare beast, an *early* Binns Open Diapason - and there was the Schulze tone alright! Broad, stringy, incisive and SLOW. No matter that no trace of German character could be found in any other stop on the organ, all of which clearly descended from a much more cautious heritage, this was the Ekte Prinzipal, authentic in every way, and better even than those of Charles Brindley.
The last advertised piece was the Boellman Suite Gothique - a personal favourite of the organist at St. Frideswide's, Mr. Greatorex - and a work in which we were left in no doubt as to the powers Pauloni has at his disposal. Indeed, at about the recapitulation in the final Toccata, a wine glass shattered quite spontaneously - though I hardly imagine that anyone noticed it do so, as the maestro was elevating a near-cliche of the repertoire into a monument of Parnassian scope.
We stood and cheered.... - well, we were certainly in the mood to, though the gentlefolk of Holland Park would scarcely consider it decorous to show too much enthusiasm in church, and their acclamations were quite dignified, though nevertheless completely heartfelt (during the Vierne I noticed two old ladies staring contentedly at Pauloni's photograph in the programme).
Well, the next few minutes are something of a jumble in my memory. Pauloni, with the most commendable condescension, returned to the organ to play an encore. Indeed it had been so clear, from his playing, that he was enjoying himself that I felt sure this 'extra' reflected reciprocal pleasure more than a sense of mere duty to his admirers. He launched himself with electrifying dispatch into a piece of which I have never heard the like .... a display of prestidigitation at the keyboard of a kind that few would dare to imitate, and a whirlwind of sound rising to an extraordinary crescendo.
Perhaps more extraordinary than it should have been. What I think must have happened is this: Mr. Greatorex had arranged for a celebratory display of fireworks to be held in the gardens after the concert; the men charged with their firing must have followed the published programme to the letter, and commenced their incendiary task shortly after the conclusion of the Boellmann (imagining that the hullabaloo thus caused would draw their audience out of the church). Of course in fact they timed the first major barrage of three- and four- inch mortars to coincide precisely with the encore. Within, I was so totally immersed in the power of the performance that I briefly believed that this giant of the organ bench had found yet another miraculous sound that I had never heard before from an organ built north of Camden Town, and I did not notice the explosions and rifle-like crackling as separate from the crashing final chords (at which point I observed that every stop-knob on the organ was drawn, including the freshly rejuvenated Choir Posaune).
I did, however, notice the violent entry of a shell through the roof above the organ, and the rather charming peach-coloured explosion which lit up the nave and caused the audience to loose all sense of discretion, and then to panic. In the ensuing barrage it was difficult to tell what happened. I found myself borne along on a tide of well-heeled yuppies, deafened by the most terrifying bangs and reports, dimly aware of a layer of elderly and disabled people over whom we were trampling, and clutching a handerkerchief to my nose against the dense cloud of sulphurous smoke. Amidst the yelling and confusion (and the dying echoes of the music) we surged towards the doors; pews were overturned, clothing was ripped against kneeler-hooks, many injuries (some serious) were sustained and (I noticed to my distress) an especially fine window by Clayton & Bell was blown to atoms by an errant Roman Candle.
As I tried desparately to make my way to the west door (I found myself unaccountably clutching the curate's hair at one point) I looked up to see the hapless Pauloni waving frantically from the console above. His situation was dreadful - by now surrounded by flames, he was in peril of his life. The fire had reached the organ, and with so much well-seasoned timber now in its grasp there would only be moments before all was consumed. The stencilled front-pipes began to totter as smoke billowed from the swell-boxes, and I understood at once that there was not a moment to loose.
Reaching up with my cane, I was able to give one of the electroliers a hearty push in the direction of the west gallery. Luckily, Pauloni seized his chance, leaping onto the swinging lamp just as the Open Diapason basses plumetted into the nave (impaling a group of girl-guides in the process). I lost my balance at this point, and while recovering by jabbing out sharply with my cane (it seemed to bed itself firmly in something soft) I briefly saw the extraordinary spectacle of Nobilissime the Count Paulo Pauloni swinging into the centre of the nave, and then, wailing in an uncharacteristically apprehensive manner, back towards the organ again. For a moment I though he would be propelled directly into the flames from which he had just escaped! Thankfully, at the moment of crisis, the chain holding the light-fitting to the ceiling broke, and he landed quite safely on an advertising executive and his wife and daughters. I made a last effort to move forward, was carried along again on the tide of people, grabbed the maestro by the hand where he lay, and dragged him out of the west door just as the burning Great soundboard crashed through the floor of the gallery above.
It was indeed a most fortunate escape. Outside in the crescent a crowd had gathered: partly a mob of gawking onlookers, partly the shocked and wounded from the recital, and also a number of sidesmen trying to complete the retiring collection. The fire engines were on their way - we could see the flashing lights where they were trying to reach the church along the crowded street. Without a moment to loose I bundled Paulo into the barouche, pulled the starter, and, horns blaring, drove away as fast as I could between the deftly-parting masses. As I looked back through the mirror I could see, past the Brock's Patent Niagara Falls and a very fine group of Catherine Wheels and Lancework Tableaux, the burning steeple sink gracefully onto the smoking ruins of St. Frideswide, Notting Hill, London W11 and onto the charred remains of a fine organ by James Jepson Binns, of Leeds, Yorkshire.
I drove Paulo back to the Abbey in silence. When we arrived I let him out of the passenger door and we said good evening to one another.
'Tell me,' he said; 'was I on good form?'
'Paulo,' I replied; 'you brought the house down.'
Back to PIPORG-L's "Essays" page
Last modified January 28, 1998.