Following her wonderful
disc for Priory of the newly restored organ at the Royal Albert
Hall, Gillian Weir is here featured at another London concert
hall, playing an organ with which she has long been associated.
That the organ in
the Royal Festival Hall was to have such a profound and extensive
influence on organ building and playing in the UK in the second
half of the 20th century I think says a lot about Britain and
its conscience-crisis which the post-war organ reform movement
across Europe caused. If taken in a European context the organ
is not especially remarkable. Marcussen had already built a
large concert hall organ in Copenhagen which, unlike the London
organ, even had mechanical action, and would build their significant
organ in Utrecht just two years later. Metzler would shortly
build their instrument at the Grossmunster in Zurich. One should
not think that the RFH organ was at the cutting edge of the
reform movement, even if only because it had to do too many
traditionally 'British' things. Its builders, Harrison and Harrison
were forced to work so far outside their usual practices that
they more or less disowned the instrument.
But I don't want
in any way to denigrate the quality of the instrument. It is
the uniquely singular vision of the genial Ralph Downes. Its
gargantuan proportions, (103 stops!), eccentric layout and complex
tonal design, (please read Downes's book, 'Baroque Tricks' for
a full and fascinating insight into the organ's creation) make
it, still, a compelling entity despite the hall's notoriously
unfavourable acoustics. The organ, and the hall are now in the
process of being renovated, and the acoustics will be improved.
The layout of the organ is also going to be adapted, but tonally,
thankfully, no changes will be made.
This recording is,
therefore, a historic sound document of the instrument in its
original setting. Gillian Weir played her first concert at the
RFH in 1965, so she knows the organ well. She delivers here
a performance of extraordinary panache, control and musicality;
the organ could not wish for a better advocate. The Ives is
delivered with humour and swagger, the Dupré is breathtakingly
good; virtuosic, sweeping, sometimes even, despite the setting,
atmospheric. The control and delivery of the Reger is staggering.
For me, the baroque music works rather less well, the Bach for
example is a bit cold and requires a better quality chorus.
The Toccata of Jules Grison, one-time organist of Reims Cathedral,
is rather vapid. And while I find the second and third of the
Bovet Preludes spot-on, the fast and rather unyielding approach
to Salamanca is really a long way from the zany surrealism of
Bovet's own recording from Salamanca Cathedral.
But putting my slight
preferences aside regarding certain performance aspects, this
is a really top-notch recording. Priory have included one of
their best booklets, with extensive programme notes by the ever-eloquent
Weir, and a lengthy essay on the future of the organ by its
curator William McVicker. But once again it is the sheer brilliance
of Gillian Weir which, above all, makes this an essential purchase.