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Gillian Weir (organ)
On Stage at Symphony Hall, Birmingham
CD 1
J.S. BACH (1685-1750)
Toccata and Fugue in D minor [13:40]
Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (c.1637-1707)
Toccata in F BuxWV 156 [8:01]
Max REGER (1873-1916)
Toccata and Fugue in D minor/major (op. 59 nos. 5 and 6) [8:27]
Anton HEILLER (1923-1979)
Tanz-Toccata (1979) [5:35]
Georg MUFFAT (1653-1704)
Toccata Duodecima (1690) [6:28]
Sergei SLONIMSKY (b.1932)
Toccata (1965) [3:31]
Georgi MUSHEL (1909-1989)
Toccata (1947) [4:28]
CD 2
Michelangelo ROSSI (1601-1656)
Toccata Settima [5:09]
Flor PEETERS (1903-1986)
Toccata, Fugue et Hymne sur ‘Ave Maris Stella’ [8:15]
William McVICKER
Six variationen über una tema di Vincent Youmans [15:53]
Peter PLANYAKSKY (b.1947)
Toccata alla Rumba [4:37]
Léonce de SAINT-MARTIN (1886-1954)
Toccata de la Libération (1945) [7:43]
Dame Gillian Weir (organ)
rec. Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 25-26 August 2005. DDD
PRIORY PRCD 867 [51:23 + 42:26]


The third of Priory’s series of recordings featuring Gillian Weir playing at the foremost concert halls in the UK is a double CD recorded on the 2001 Klais instrument at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. The programming on the face of it is poor: no fewer than eleven Toccatas, but there is sufficient variety in the music to keep the listener in check. 

Weir is, as usual, at her best in the late romantic and twentieth century repertoire. I especially enjoyed the Toccata by Saint-Martin, which should be played more often, as the thematic material is especially strong. Saint-Martin was Pierre Cochereau’s predecessor at Notre-Dame. Elsewhere the famous Tanz-Toccata by Weir’s teacher Anton Heiller receives a vivid and ferocious reading, as does the, completely unknown to me, Prokofiev-like Toccata by the St Petersburg composer Sergei Slonimsky. And, if the Reger Toccata is, for me, too frantic, Weir achieves a stunningly organic sense of growth in the Fugue. William McVicker’s composition was a commission on the occasion of the retirement of American concert agent Karen MacFarlane by six of the British-based organists she represented. The theme is Vincent Youmans’ ‘Tea for Two’ and each variation represents one of the famous musicians, although which variation belongs to which player is left to the listener to work out. An amusing work then, full of pastiche and no little invention. Listen also to the way Weir brings Flor Peeters’ work off the page which a compelling feeling for timing and drama. 

The earlier repertoire seems a strange choice on this modernist Germanic concert hall Klais. The Bach works well enough; Weir’s momentum in the fugue is excellent, though the plenum is deadly dull. Elsewhere, the acoustic and lack of character inherent in the instrument do not invite me to grovel at the feet of Emperor Leopold in Muffat’s Toccata Duodecima. Here Weir is at her least convincing, playing too fast for the drama of the music to become evident, and using a strange trumpet registration on the third page ‘durezze e ligature’ – surely this is the Italian influence in Muffat’s music at its most obvious? The Klais even has a Voce Umana…. Rossi’s crazy Toccata Settima loses all of its meaning by being played in equal temperament.

For me though the big disappointment is the organ at Symphony Hall. It’s simply not good enough to hold my attention for the duration of 2 CDs. It is important to differentiate between the modern eclectic organ which grew naturally from the study of historic organs, a phenomenon at which the Americans lead the race, as stunning modern instruments by Paul Fritts (and especially the organ at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma) and Martin Pasi testify, and, on the other hand, the eclectic organ which grew from the modernist movement of the post-war era, with its roots in the neo-baroque. The latter organ-type found its maturity, if we’re honest, in the Rieger and Klais organs of the mid-1970s. Twenty-five years later this Klais organ strikes me being loud, sterile and quite anti-symphonic. The reeds are horribly neutral, mystery is completely absent, and the lack of a broad, warm 8’ fonds is very telling. Of the three concert hall organs Weir has recorded in this series, this is the one I want to listen to least. Fisk seem to me to have a better idea of how to make an eclectic organ from a symphonic basis; Klais will forever build Klais organs. 

This is still essential though for fans of Gillian Weir, and I remain a fervent admirer of her playing and advocacy of the organ in general. What a pity she didn’t contribute the liner notes. Those by David Gammie are excellent, but Weir’s own insights are always fascinating, and usually help to put her performances into a clear and inspiring context.

Chris Bragg

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