Taking a look back at the 2018 competition...


Johannes Krahl, aged 19 and a student of Martin Schmeding at the University of Music and Theatre, Leipzig, has won the Senior section of the Northern Ireland International Organ Competition (NIIOC), which took place on Monday 13 August on the Walker organ in St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, Armagh.

The competition is for organists aged 21 and under, who must be of diploma standard to enter the senior category. Applications to take part were received from China, France, Germany, Estonia, Switzerland, Italy, UK and Ireland. As a result of the exceptional standard, the shortlist for the senior competition was increased from 12 to 13 competitors, representing five countries.

The competition jury was chaired by Catherine Ennis, Director of Music at St Lawrence Jewry Church in the City of London, and a former President of the Royal College of Organists. She was joined for the Senior category by David Hill, former organist of Westminster Cathedral, Winchester Cathedral and St John’s College Cambridge, former chief conductor of the BBC Singers and music director of the Bach Choir, London; and for all three categories by organist, harpsichordist and lecturer in music at Girton College Cambridge, Martin Ennis.

NIIOC is immensely grateful to Catherine Ennis (no relation to Martin!) for stepping in at extremely short notice to replace Dame Gillian Weir, who was to have chaired the jury but was unable to attend due to unforeseen circumstances. Ms Ennis commented: ‘I was so sorry to learn that Dame Gillian would be unable to attend NIIOC and present the inaugural medal in her name, but was delighted to be able to step in to chair the jury and help ensure that this important competition was able to go ahead without any further hitches.’

As first prize winner, Johannes Krahl wins £1,500, a trophy, a £650 New York flight subsidy and six public recitals, hosted by venues including St Thomas Fifth Avenue, New York; Westminster Abbey, London, Stockholm Cathedral and King’s College, Cambridge, in addition to a trophy. The first prize package is sponsored by an anonymous donor.

Krahl began his musical education at the age of five as a piano student at the Bautzen Music School. He took up the organ in 2010 and is currently studying for a degree in church music and organ with Martin Schmeding and Daniel Beilschmidt at the Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy University of Music and Theatre, Leipzig. Krahl’s NIIOC recital programme consisted of the Vivace from J S Bach’s Sonata No 2 in C minor BWV 526; the Fantaisie Op. 15 by the Austrian composer, arts administrator and organist Thomas Daniel Schlee; and the fugue from Reger’s Chorale Fantasia, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, Op. 52.

Second prize of £500 and hosted recitals at Notre-Dame-d’Auteuil, Paris, Trinity College, Cambridge, and Manchester Cathedral, sponsored by Wells-Kennedy Organ Partnership, Lisburn, went to Pierre-Francois Purson, 21, a student of Erwan Le Prado at Caen Conservatoire, France. He also studies piano with Julien Le Prado and has taken part in masterclasses with the French pianist Frédéric Aguessy. In his Armagh recital he played J S Bach’s Fugue in E minor BWV 548; the Choral-Improvisation on the ‘Victimae Paschali’ Laudes by Tournemire, reconstructed by Duruflé; and ‘Estampie’ from the Ricercare by Michael Radulescu.

Third prize of £200 and hosted recitals at St Michael’s Church, Cornhill, London and St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, sponsored by Allen Organs Ireland, went to Alex Little, 21, who has just graduated from Merton College Oxford where he will take up the post of assistant organist at the college chapel in September as he embarks upon postgraduate studies. Little also won the Bach prize of £200, awarded by Mrs Elizabeth Bicker, and a Bach Corner recital at the St Albans International Organ Competition 2019.

The inaugural Dame Gillian Weir Medal for an outstanding performance of one particular work in the senior competition was awarded to 19-year-old Donal McCann for his performance of the Deux Esquisses (‘Two Sketches’) Op. 41 by Marcel Dupré. McCann is a former pupil of Methodist College, Belfast and Eton College, a former chorister of St Peter’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Belfast, and currently the junior organ scholar at King’s College, Cambridge. The Dame Gillian Weir Medal was created in partnership with the Belfast School of Art at Ulster University and the winning design was chosen by Dame Gillian from a highly competitive field of student entries. It was produced by Declan Coyle from Londonderry, a jewellery and silversmithing specialist on the BA Hnours degree course in Contemporary Applied Art. His design for the Dame Gillian Weir Medal incorporates elements of the Ulster Hall organ, one of Dame Gillian’s most-loved instruments.

Ilaria Centorrino, 19, a student at the Cosenza Conservatoire of Music, Italy, and George Herbert, 17, a student at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, were highly commended.

Commenting on the Senior category results, chair of the jury Catherine Ennis said: ‘The overall standard of playing by a wonderful roster of competitors from all over the world was remarkably high, with an ambitious range of programming. The first prize was awarded to Johannes Krahl because his playing displayed depth of understanding and an ability to project musical architecture with astonishing maturity. His technical expertise led to a stunning performance of Reger’s fugue from Wachet auf.

‘The inaugural Dame Gillian Weir Medal was awarded to the outstanding young organist Donal McCann for his breath-taking performance of the Deux Esquisses by Dupré, which displayed technical virtuosity and complete control of the instrument. The second prize overall went to Pierre-Francois Purton because his outstanding musical personality, was apparent in all three pieces. He will be one to watch as he develops his stylistic awareness.

‘The third prize overall and Bach Prize to Alex Little who found ingenious solutions to the problems of registering Bach on a cathedral organ built in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His choice of an esoteric set of variations was inspired in the competition context and his Messiaen performance was equally impressive.’

Four players were shortlisted for the Intermediate category of the competition, which took place on Tuesday 14 August in St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral. It was won by Laura Schlappa, 18, from Germany, who played the Final from Widor’s Symphonie No 6 in G mior, Op. 42, and the Sortie (Le vent de l’Esprit) from Messe de la Pentecôte by Olivier Messiaen. She receives £300 and a recital at St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, Armagh. The prize is sponsored by Mr John Miley of the Organ Club of Great Britain. Second prize went to 15-year-old Erik Rajamae, from Estonia, third place to Kasimir Anapliotis, 18, from Germany, and Dongqui Liu, 16, from China, was highly commended.

‘The Intermediate competition gave us much to deliberate with four excellent recitals,’ said Catherine Ennis. ‘The winner was Laura Schlappa because of the technical assurance evident in her bravura reading of the Widor Final and her very exciting performance of the Messiaen Sortie in which she threw caution to the winds.

‘Second place went to Erik Rajame who, although the youngest in category, impressed us with his natural flow of his playing and his advocacy and very convincing performance of a piece by an Estonian composer who was unknown to the judges. But we were also very impressed by the other two competitors.’

The Junior category also took place on Tuesday 14 August and was won by George Baldwin, aged 12, from Ascot, Berkshire, who receives £200, sponsored by Mr Alasdair MacLaughlin. He played two pieces by J S Bach and the Tuba Tune by C S Lang on the Wells-Kennedy organ in St Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church, Armagh. ‘George is a delightful young man whose presentation of his performance was a model that some of the older competitors could emulate,’ said Ms Ennis. ‘In his three pieces he demonstrated a real delight and joy in playing, which is what the festival should be all about.’

The Northern Ireland International Organ Competition is for organists under the age of 21. It offers substantial monetary prizes, prestigious recital opportunities and masterclasses with leading organists across the globe. Founded in 2011, from the outset it has attracted exceptionally gifted young players; early winners Ben Comeau, Ben Bloor, Richard Gowers and Andrew Forbes are already establishing successful careers.

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The Northern Ireland International Organ Competition was established by Richard Yarr in 2011 to provide talented young organists, aged 21 and under, with major recital engagements, financial support and recording opportunities. It is now recognised as the world’s leading international competition for young organists and is officially partnered with the St. Albans International Organ Festival.

Since NIIOC began recital venues have included St. Thomas Fifth Avenue New York, Westminster Abbey, Southwark Cathedral, Christ Church Cathedral Dublin, St. Columb’s Cathedral Londonderry, Trinity College Cambridge, Canongate Kirk Edinburgh, St. Peter Mancroft Norwich, St. Peter’s Cathedral Belfast, Worcester Cathedral and St. Michael's Cornhill London.

International jurors have included Thierry Mechler (France), Kimberly Marshall (USA), Mattias Wager (Sweden), Frédéric Blanc (France), Erwan le Prado (France) and Martin Jean (USA).

David Hill, Chief Conductor of the BBC Singers and former Organist and Director of Music of Westminster Cathedral, Winchester Cathedral and St John’s College Cambridge, is a patron of the competition and has been a jury member every year since its inception. The other patrons are Mark Duley, Organist of St Nicholas Cathedral, Galway; James O’Donnell, Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey; and Dame Gillian Weir.

Partners include the Charles Wood Festival and Summer School, Armagh (which runs concurrently with the organ competition); Pipeworks Organ Festival, Dublin; the Arts Council of Northern Ireland; and St Albans International Organ Festival.

Catherine Ennis is Organist and Director of Music at St Lawrence Jewry Church, London, where she has been on the staff for over 30 years. One of the most experienced organists in the country, she is a former President of The Royal College of Organists and in 2018 was awarded its medal for distinguished achievement in organ-playing and service to the college.

David Hill is widely known as one of the leading choral directors in the UK. He is Musical Director of The Bach Choir, Music Director of the Southern Sinfonia, Music Director of the Leeds Philharmonic Society, Associate Guest Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Principal Conductor of Yale Schola Cantorum. He is also artistic director of the Cambridge Summer Music Festival and the Charles Wood Festival and Summer School, Armagh, Northern Ireland.

Born in Carlisle and educated at Chetham’s School of Music, of which he is now a Governor, he was made a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists aged 17. Having been Organ Scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge, he returned to hold the post of Director of Music from 2004-2007. Other appointments have included Master of the Music at Winchester Cathedral, Master of the Music at Westminster Cathedral, Artistic Director of the Philharmonia Chorus and ten years as Chief Conductor of The BBC Singers. He holds an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Southampton for Services to Music.

David has a broad-ranging discography covering repertoire from Thomas Tallis to a number of world premiere recordings. As well as achieving prestigious Grammy and Gramophone Awards, many of his discs have been recommended as Critic’s Choices. His ongoing series of English choral music for Naxos has received particular acclaim. He is also well known as an orchestral conductor in the UK and beyond.

Martin Ennis is Senior Lecturer in Music at the Faculty of Music and Fellow and Director of Music at Girton College, Cambridge. He began his higher education as Organ Scholar of Christ’s College, Cambridge, and on graduating pursued further studies first at the Musikhochschule in Cologne and later back in Cambridge. From 1989-90 he was Director of Music at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and in 1990 he was appointed inaugural Pilkington Fellow at Girton College. He joined the permanent staff of the Cambridge Music Faculty in 1994. From 2002 to 2005 he served as Chairman of the Music Faculty.

Martin Ennis combines his university life with a busy career as a performer, specialising as a continuo player. A Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, he has been a prizewinner at several international competitions. In addition to his work as the principal keyboard player of the London Mozart Players he has performed with such groups as the Monteverdi Choir (for their 25th anniversary concert), the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Kölner Bach-Collegium, the Polish Chamber Orchestra, and the Orchestra of St Luke’s in New York. He has made many recordings, including a first concerto recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.