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Royal Albert Hall Organ Restored
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) (arr. Best)
Overture to the Oratorio ‘St. Paul’ op. 36 (1836) [7:44]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Six Fugues on BACH op. 60 (1845): Langsam [5:03]; Lebhaft [5;25]; Mit sanften Stimmen [3:39]; Mäßig, doch nicht zu langsam [4:21]; Lebhaft [2:43]; Mäßig, nach und nach schneller [6:34]
William BOLCOM (b. 1938)
Free Fantasia on ‘O Zion Haste’ and ‘How Firm a Foundation’ (1984) [7:47]
George and Ira GERSHWIN arr. Howard CABLE (b. 1920)
The Brothers Gershwin [10:30]
Sigfrid KARG-ELERT (1877-1933)
Valse Mignonne op. 142 No. 2 [5:17]
Joseph JONGEN (1873-1953)
Sonata Eroica (1930) [15:21]
Simon Preston (organ)
rec. Royal Albert Hall, London, 23-25 March 2006
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The gargantuan organ of the Royal Albert Hall has been restored to a condition it had never previously enjoyed. For the first time this instrument, the largest in the
UK, is a fully functioning entity, and a fascinating organ has emerged. Father Willis’s 1871 instrument was always criticised for having too modest a sound for the vast space. It was sensible therefore to restore it to its 1934 situation, when Harrisons completed their two-phase rebuild, enlarging, loudening and electrifying the instrument,  re-using much Willis material. The tonal result speaks more of Edwardian England than of Father Willis in his heyday. It is undoubtedly a good thing that the ultimate in English ‘town hall’ organ building, at least outside Sydney, has been given new life at precisely the time when Britain is waking up to the qualities of its post-Victorian, pre-war instruments.

It sounds marvellous here, occasional tuning problems aside; highly colourful, extremely powerful, a vast range of reed and string colour, an unending palette of sound for the orchestrally-inspired organist. Simon Preston fits the bill perfectly, playing with panache and virtuosity throughout. He begins with early romantic German music. The Mendelssohn is an obvious choice – its transcriber, W.T. Best opened the first version of the RAH organ in 1871. The resulting aesthetic is very much Mendelssohn seen through the eyes of an English organist of a generation later. The Schumann is a slightly more curious choice. This very ‘classically’ influenced music was never conceived in terms of an organ of the RAH’s tonal resources. Preston plays the music in a truly late-romantic way, with an abundance of colour-changes, even using the very-high-pressure reeds at climactic moments. The music doesn’t suffer as such, but this, I find, is Schumann seen from an aesthetic viewpoint of a generation (at least) later. Bolcom’s Fantasia is becoming ever more popular, with its atonal and free opening and its bluesy conclusion. The Gershwin for me is the only unfortunate choice, basically a medley of favourite tunes, it does little more than show off some colours. There’s also the wonderful Karg-Elert Valse Mignonne; isn’t there a repeat missing here? Finally there’s a slightly hard-driven Jongen Sonata Eroica – I have to confess I miss a little space and contrast in the playing here.

The CD makes an excellent companion to Dame Gillian Weir’s very recommendable disc for Priory on the same organ. Mike Hatch’s recording is a bit brutal compared to the more spacious Paul Crichton effort for Priory. But it is impossible to choose between the two new releases featuring this remarkable instrument; best to buy both I would suggest.

Chris Bragg







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