Tag Archives: George McPhee

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

Paisley Abbey : A celtic Prayer


With church choirs effectively silenced this year due to Covid, the release of a new album by Paisley Abbey Choir is definitely something to celebrate. The music is fresh and inspiring – Scottish composers old and new – which the performances abundantly reflect, albeit from a smaller Abbey Choir than was once the norm.

A Celtic Prayer, conceived under the directorship of George McPhee – now heading towards his 58th year as Abbey organist – was recorded last January. McPhee’s own compositions feature prominently, including three organ works that provide occasional respite from a substantial package of sacred choral music.

The earliest written are two settings by the Renaissance Scottish composer Robert Johnson (c1470 – 1554), a noted precursor of the great Robert Carver. The smooth-grained a cappella polyphony of Gaude Maria Virgo – intimately sung by a small sub-group of the main choir – contrasts with the fuller, more hymn-like declamations of Benedicam Domino.

Then there’s a leap to the 20th/21st centuries and a spread of repertoire representative of a wide range of Scottish compositional voices. There is no Rose reveals a gorgeously ruminative side to the late Thomas Wilson, the magical diminuendo on “Gloria in excess deo” utterly breathtaking. Cedric Thorpe Davie’s two anthems, The Lord is He and Come Holy Ghost the Maker complement each other, the first gritty and institutionally rousing, the second a true gem in its sublime expressiveness and arching power, both meatily accompanied by organist David Gerrard.

Mater salutaris is one of the late Martin Dalby’s most inspirational works, intrinsically pure and simple, deliciously coloured by soft-spun complexities of texture, the power of its understatement neatly captured in this performance. 

Indeed, how often do we find composers like Dalby and Wilson, whose instrumental works frequently explore more dissonant channels of communication, reset to calmer harmonic solutions in their choral music? There’s combined evidence of that in Stuart MacRae’s beautifully original setting of Adam lay ybounden, its powerful juxtaposition of golden a cappella verses against the freer, wilder organ responses giving potent new meaning to these 15th century words.

Not everything is as wholly inspired. Owen Swindale’s Trinity Sunday is charming in its simplicity, but a little too like composition by numbers. A resulting matter-of-factness informs the performance. 

Little danger of that in James MacmIllan’s Chosen – written in 2003 for McPhee’s 40th anniversary as Paisley organist – initially dour in character, its weeping ornamentation challenging the tuning of the uppermost voices, but rising to tumultuous heights. More unusual, refreshingly so, is Eddie McGuire’s Three Donne Lyrics, settings of words by John Donne for choir and bass flute (Ewan Robertson) that combine primitive wistfulness and solemnity with dreamy snatches of free-flowing post-Impressionism.  

The title track, A Celtic Prayer, is by McPhee himself, one of two choral pieces written with his Paisley Abbey Choir in mind. It boasts allegiance to Leighton and Howells, its mellifluous sung line, modal at heart, bolstered by the restive fluidity of the organ writing. The liturgical Benedictus es Domine provides a lusty contrast.

McPhee performs his own organ music: two endearing “Preludes” on well-known Christmas hymns, Bunessan (“Child in a Manger”) and Quem Pastores, before signing off with his fruity Trumpet March on “Highland Cathedral”. Who would dare deny the veteran Paisley Abbey organist such a joyous indulgence?
Ken Walton