Sir John Soane in Walworth

St Peter’s Church, London SE17 2HH

Walworth (Saxon: Wealawyr, 1006) and Newington (Niwetun, 1212) were once separate hamlets along the road leading south from London Bridge. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the area was noted for its public gardens and commercial small-holdings, especially those cultivating fruit and flowers. The population of the district was – surprisingly – very little affected by its proximity to London until the early nineteenth century,

Late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century maps depict Walworth as a pleasant country neighbourhood with a few newly-formed roads stretching across the gardens and fields. However, the formation of these new roads after 1754 brought an impetus to build well-to-do housing, and in 1808 the Walworth Road was described as being lined with elegant mansions. Between 1800 and 1820  the population of Newington increased from 14,847 to 44,526, although as late as 1853 when the author Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–96) lived there she found it a “charming retreat” with a view from the windows of sheep and lambs grazing in a meadow.

But steadily throughout nineteenth century many of the area’s genteel Georgian-/Regency-era houses were pulled down and replaced by dense blocks of dwellings and three-storey terraced houses. By the end of the centiry the whole area was closely packed with streets of working-class houses, shops and industry.

Large-scale post-war public-sector regeneration of housing resulted in the demolition of much of the earlier developments, replacing them with modernist estates of public housing, which in turn are now being replaced by estates of new private sector housing.

In 1820, faced with a rapidly expanding population, the authorities sanctioned the creation of St Peter’s church (opened 1825) to the design of Sir John Soane (1753–1837), his first church, and it remains his most complete surviving church building. The  parish is a thriving community and the building stands in excellent condition.

The west-gallery pipe-organ facade and gilded pipes belong to the first instrument (1824/5) installed in the west gallery, made by the London firm of Henry Cephas (H. C.) Lincoln (fl.1810-55). The original organ no longer exists. The current instrument by the firm of Harrison of Durham was moved here in 2010 from the chapel of Whitelands College, Putney, where it had first been installed, in 1949.

Jane Parker-Smith in recital

Freemasons Hall, London WC2

Yesterday I went along to an early evening organ recital performed by Jane Parker-Smith on the recently restored and enlarged pipe organ in the Grand Temple of the Freemasons Hall in central London, UK.

It is some thirty or more years since I last heard Jane Parker-Smith perform – my fault and not hers – and I was looking forward to hearing and seeing again the showy technical brilliance and the vivacious stage presence that I remembered so clearly as her hallmark. To give you some idea think of a ‘Kate Bush’ of the organ world.

These days  Jane Parker-Smith presents a more strikingly sober figure than in her early career, and there is a less obvious desire to dazzle as was evident in her modest introductory speech and black concert attire; the programme notes went so far as to compare her with the famously serious pianist Martha Agerich.

Despite her demurely presented introductory speech Parker-Smith’s demanding programme was  brilliantly performed. Technical wizardry is still in evidence – as seen in close up via two large video screens relaying the console – but here now is also a considered interpretative authority.

Of all the organists I have heard so far in this short series of recitals – part of celebrations marking 300 years of the Grand Lodge of English freemasons – Jane Parker-Smith seemed to be the most at home with this instrument. The Grand Temple has a dry acoustic, designed for clarity of speech rather than the presentation of music; every note and the silences between notes are crystal clear. It is perhaps Jane Parker-Smith’s life lived more in the demanding acoustic of the international concert hall than the looser acoustics of the average church buidling that contributed to her entirely assured playing on this occasion.

The programme was largely of (to me) unfamiliar pieces of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this regard I was particularly struck by the virtuosic concluding pages of Variations on ‘Adeste Fideles’ by Belgian-American organist/composer Gaston Marie Dethie (1875-1958).

An evening such as this would not be properly concluded without an encore, and Jane Parker-Smith gave us an arrangement of Flight of the Bumble Bee by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908), effortlessly and impishly thrown-off con brio as we could all see and hear, and it was rapturously received. Go Jane!

So maybe Jane Parker-Smith’s excuberant dazzle is not entirely a thing of the past?