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Ex Tempore - Reviews

International Record Review, December 2011

‘Ex Tempore’, we are informed, is a DVD that sets out to ‘shed light on how English organists improvised’. It certainly does this and much more in a remarkably lucid fashion. The presentation is stylish and accessible while displaying real substance in the subject matter that will appeal to the expert and casual viewer alike.

Ronny Krippner is a Bavarian-born organist who received his formative training both in Germany, at the Hochschule für Kirchenmusik in Regensburg, and in England, at Exeter University. Since then he has lived and worked in England for a number of years, having developed a passion for the English choral tradition in particular. Fro an early age he took a special interest in the art of organ improvisation. In 2009 he was a finalist in the prestigious Organ Improvisation Competition at St Alban’s and during the same year won two prizes at the International Organ Improvisation Competition in Biarritz. More recently he was appointed Specialist Lecturer for Organ Improvisation at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

This 98-minute film traces the development of improvisation in England from the sixteenth century to the present day. Of course, it is only during the last hundred years or so that it has been possible to capture improvisation as a sound recording: the spontaneous efforts of past masters are lost forever. It is, however, possible to consider historical techniques and approaches to improvisation by studying the extant music of great practitioners. This is exactly how Krippner sets about presenting his programme. He traces the development of composition techniques (and therefore, by extension, those of improvisation) through the work of prominent English musicians, starting with the pre-reformation versets based on plainchant by Thomas Tallis, the fantasias of William Byrd and works by two Baroque organists and composers, Henry Purcell and George Frederick Handel, through to the music of Charles Villiers Stanford and the output of three twentieth-century composers, Herbert Howells, William Mathias and Kenneth Leighton.

Krippner’s approach to each section is to take a genre favoured by the composer in question, highlight the essential characteristic elements of their compositions and ‘reconstruct’ his own piece in the same style, frequently basing his improvisations very clearly on well-known examples by the composer himself. Not only does this give an illuminating view into Krippner’s approach to improvisation, it also provides a clear and beautifully expressed appreciation of the development of English organ music. This development is further highlighted by the use of historically appropriate instruments, beginning with the Goetze and Gwynn Wetheringsett organ and continuing with the famous Adlington Hall instrument in Cheshire, the Gerard Smith organ at St Lawrence, Little Stanmore, the Walker organ of Bristol Cathedral and that of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. Through the consideration of these instruments, an overview of the development of the English organ is gained as well.

In addition to the more analytical approaches described above, there is a great deal of historical background given. This is either presented by Krippner himself or by the insertion of clips of interviews with internationally distinguished figures, including renowned improvisers David Briggs and Martin Baker, organ builder Dominic Gwynn (who was instrumental in the building of one of the organs on this disc and the restoration of another) and the eminent scholar Donald Burrows. The contributions of these experts are absorbing and the points at which they are inserted during the film are extremely well judged and balanced.

Other influences on the development of improvisation are also considered, such as treatises on the subject, as well as the important impact of the Royal College of Organists through the inclusion of strict improvisational requirements in their examinations, essential qualifications for anybody wishing seriously to pursue the organ.

The presentation of this box set is immaculate, with the front cover of the cardboard case adorned tastefully and appropriately with a drawing of Krippner ‘playing’ blank manuscript staves, as well as the pipework of the Smith organ at Little Stanmore, featured on the recording. The accompanying booklet contains a succinct and approachable introduction to the subject and to the content of the discs, as well as details of the organs played (including colour photographs) and biographical information about the performer.

Of course, a major consideration on a set such as this is the quality of the playing. Krippner is evidently marvellously enthusiastic about his subject as well as dedicated to his study. The performances throughout the DVD reflect this and make the replication of his improvisations on a separate audio disc well worthwhile: they can easily be enjoyed when heard in their own right.

This is a phenomenally successful release which deals with fascinating subject matter in an expert manner. It is therefore highly recommended, not only to organ enthusiasts but to anybody with an interest in music.

David Newsholme


BBC Music Magazine – December 2011

Performance                ****
Picture & Sound         *****

The French teach it. As do the Germans. So why don’t we? Organ improvisation is no longer widely taught in the UK even though parish organists are regularly expected to play ad hoc during services. Without guidance it’s a brave player who launches into a post-gospel fanfare and risks sounding more like Varèse than Vierne.

Thankfully there are a handful of brilliant British improvisers reviving these skills – virtuosos David Briggs and Martin Baker, and the presenter of this film, German organist Ronny Krippner, among them. A phenomenal improviser himself, Krippner’s Ex Tempore – the Art of Organ Improvisation in England, charts the history of this dark art, from the time of the Tudor composers to the present day. Using a different organ for each major period, he artlessly stitches together bite-size harmonic ideas and figurations to demonstrate how improvisations are constructed, alongside clear and unfussy musical and historical explanations. Howells, he shows, frequently employs a scale that sharpens the fourth and flattens the fifth of a major scale. Adding in a couple of Howell’s characteristic melodic gestures, Krippner’s introduction to this English composer’s soundworld is revelatory – as are his Handelian concerto, played on the wonderful 17th-century organ at St Lawrence, Little Stanmore, Victorian march and Tudor fantasia of considerable beauty.

Well-shot, engagingly narrated and beautifully recorded, Ex Tempore is a fascinating insight into a neglected art. An accompanying CD features the improvisations from the film. One quibble: Krippner should either look directly at the camera or away from it. Somewhere in between is a little unnerving.

Oliver Condy


Choir and Organ Magazine, September 2011

Since launching in 2007, Fugue State Films has acquired a reputation for producing imaginative and well-made recitals and documentaries. Its latest release is its most ambitious offering yet, as Ronny Krippner takes a tour through 500 years of organ improvisation in England from the early sixteenth century to the present day.

Bavarian-born, London-based, and schooled in both the German and British choral traditions, Krippner has held several organist posts in the UK and proves an articulate guide in a considered and admirably concise analysis of shifts in compositional and improvisational style and what amounts to a potted history of the mechanical and musical developments of organs during the wide timespan under discussion. Recently appointed Specialist Lecturer in Organ Improvisation at the Birmingham Conservatoire, at each historical milestone Krippner illustrates theoretical development by extemporising on a well-chosen selection of instruments that range from a copy of a mid-sixteenth century hand-bellows operated Wetheringsett organ to the imposing modern array of the organ at Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral.

At less than 90 minutes, it’s something of a whistle stop tour, but one that never seems rushed or superficial. With contributions from organ builder Dominic Gwynn, and organists David Briggs, Martin Baker and Donald Burrows, Krippner describes the long arc of improvisational styles from the age of Tallis and Byrd, through the turmoil and tumult of the Civil War, Protectorate and Restoration, into the age of Handel and the remarkable renaissance of English organ music in the 19th and 20th centuries (wonderfully represented here by Howells, Leighton, Mathias and others). Despite Krippner’s slightly disconcerting off-camera gaze throughout, this is a fascinating, informative, enjoyable and well-made documentary. A bonus CD of all the music featured is also provided.


Michael Quinn


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