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Organ Recital by Sir Stephen Cleobury, King's College Chapel, Saturday, July 6, 2019


By John Gilroy


Stephen Cleobury, recently knighted Director of Music at King’s College Cambridge, gave his final public recital at King’s Chapel on Saturday evening. He is retiring after 37 years in his post.

Apart from being a conductor, composer and Master of the renowned King’s College choristers, Cleobury is principally an organist, and it was fitting that Saturday’s farewell event should have been an organ recital which spanned, in its specially selected contents, the entire range of his distinguished career.

Kings College organ restored at back in situ. Director of Music, Stephen Cleobury. Picture: Keith Heppell. (13518916)
Kings College organ restored at back in situ. Director of Music, Stephen Cleobury. Picture: Keith Heppell. (13518916)

This was more than an organ recital, however. It was an historic moment which inspired reflection on the slow and inevitable passing of time. Many present probably couldn’t even recall Stephen Cleobury not being there, his undemonstrative authority fulfilling the obligations of the task, day in, week out, month in, year out. . . all those daily Evensongs, the innumerable concerts, Easter at Kings, Nine Lessons and Carols at Christmas.

Each of his chosen pieces on Saturday evening had biographical significance, and the names with which they were often associated reflected the high profile of the musician who, before taking up his position at King’s, had been organist at both Westminster Abbey and the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral.

Bach’s C Minor Fantasia which opened the recital was one of the earliest pieces, as a chorister at Worcester Cathedral and under the tutelage of Douglas Guest, Cleobury had learned to play. He followed this with Bach’s deeply affecting Prelude, ‘O Mensch bewein dein Sünde gross’, a work which employed what he called ‘some of the most beautiful registers on our wonderful Chapel organ’.

Stephen Cleobury (13518845)
Stephen Cleobury (13518845)

It was fortunate that Cleobury’s tenure extended far enough for him to oversee the restoration of the Harrison organ which kept it out of action for the best part of 2016. His performance of ‘O Mensch bewein’ is recorded on a recent CD of the organ entitled ‘The King of Instruments: A Voice Reborn’.

The core of the recital was two contrasting works by Messiaen, a composer for whom the organist has expressed a deep admiration. ‘Joie et claret des Corps Glorieux’ from the cycle ‘Les Corps Glorieux’ put the power of King’s organ to the test, while ‘Le banquet céleste’ reduced the volume in its devotional celebration of the Eucharist. In both, Stephen Cleobury displayed his characteristic virtuosic ability.

A composer Cleobury particularly favours, and in fact knew personally, is Herbert Howells. The Psalm Prelude Set 1 No. 1, is his declared favourite among all Howells’s Psalm Preludes and Rhapsodies. ‘Lo, the poor crieth and the Lord heareth him: and saveth him out of all his troubles’ developed from its quiet register to a terrific cri de coeur, before subsiding back to a sequence quietly reverential.

Stephen Cleobury (13518905)
Stephen Cleobury (13518905)

To conclude, the organist in his selection touchingly remembered his parents for making possible the career he has subsequently been able to enjoy. His father, himself an organist of note, loved Mendelssohn, and often played a movement ‘Con moto maestoso – ‘Aus tiefer Not’ from the third organ sonata which his son, Stephen, now also played. It contains, apparently, a musical semblance to the ending of the slow movement of the ‘Scottish Symphony’ from which, Cleobury noted, he’d received much consolation during convalescence after a recent accident in Cambridge.It was, in all, an incredibly moving recital, at the conclusion of which he was repeatedly called back to acknowledge a standing ovation.

This reviewer can say little more than to be sure he speaks for everyone in expressing thanks to, and wishing every blessing on, Stephen Cleobury for his future beyond Cambridge and all the wonderful music he has made for so many years both here and at King’s College. What an inheritance he has magnificently lived up to. And what a legacy he now leaves to his successor.

JOHN GILROY



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