BBC SSO / Brabbins / McPhee

Paisley Abbey

By sheer coincidence, a concert scheduled to celebrate George McPhee’s 60th year as organist and director of music at Paisley Abbey, also happened to fall on his 86th birthday. The former achievement, in this age of lesser commitment to life-long jobs, is admirable enough, the latter all the more remarkable, given the alertness of McPhee’s starring role on Friday with the BBC SSO and an assortment of choirs – a home game for the much respected octogenarian who has not lost his devilish wit. 

After a  tear-inducing organ and orchestra encore arrangement (by SSO violinist Alastair Savage) of Auld Lang Syne, McPhee was coaxed into saying a few valedictory words. They were characteristically pithy, and anything but valedictory. “Despite the title of the last piece, I’m not leaving,” he snapped with immaculate comic timing. 

It was a full house, or church, that honoured this gratifyingly warm celebration. The opening half centred on church-related music, some of it radiating pomp and circumstance, some of it spiritually intimate, but all of it joyous and respectful.

For that, the SSO and conductor Martyn Brabbins were joined by three cathedral choirs – McPhee’s own Paisley Abbey choristers, and the Edinburgh choirs of St Giles’ (where he was once assistant organist) and St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedrals. At one end of the spectrum was the gushing rhythmical verve and dramatic opulence of Walton’s Coronation Te Deum, the majestic sumptuousness of Parry’s I Was Glad, and the florid ecstasy of Gabrielli’s Jubilate Deo a 8; at the other, the melting a cappella piety of William Byrd’s O nata lux, conducted by St Giles’ organist and master of the music, Michael Harris.

Before all that, however, a piece from Hollywood musical royalty, Scots-born film composer Patrick Doyle’s King Charles III Coronation March, first heard at last May’s Westminster Abbey coronation service. The relevance? Doyle, who attended on Friday, learnt his harmony and counterpoint under McPhee at the former RSAMD. His piece bore the hallmarks of his cinematic skills: simple, to-the-point, with the innate ability to send shivers up the spine.

If McPhee played a relatively supportive musical role in the first half, his true moment in the sun arrived after the interval in Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. And how better to appreciate this charismatically French work than with an organ installed originally by the celebrated 19th century Parisienne builder Cavaillé-Coll? Still present, even in its modernised manifestation, are both a fruitiness of tone and a snarling richness from the reeds, which provided oodles of poetic subtlety and fiery retorts in a performance further enhanced by the expansive acoustics.

Brabbins played a cool game, strategically undemonstrative, and by doing so harnessed a biting clarity that might easily have been lost in a more thrusting, impatient approach. The Adagio that closes the opening movement, underpinned by the organ’s gentle cushioning, was a luscious oasis of calm amid the surrounding drama. 

The final movement played its part in cementing the evening’s raison d’être, the cumulative impact of organ and orchestra doing tumultuously what the Doyle had done in miniature, raising the hairs on the back of the neck and, through the catharsis of its sheer volume, and the audience’s obvious affection for the Abbey’s longstanding incumbent, inciting a spontaneous standing ovation. 

Ken Walton

This concert was recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland