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The Organ of Buckingham Palace Ballroom 
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Passacaglia in C Minor BWV 582 [13:47]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) [4:32]
Rhosymedre [4:32]       
Sonata No. 3 in A (Con moto maestoso [7:07]; Andante tranquillo [2:18])
Théodore DUBOIS (1837-1924)       
Toccata [6:46]
Noel RAWSTHORNE (b.1929) 
Dance Suite: I. March - On Ilkley Moor [1:57]; II. Dancing Feet [2:03]; III. Waltz [2:44]; IV. Dance des Papillons [2:35]; V. Line Dance [4:13]
Joseph Nolan (organ)
rec. Buckingham Palace Ballroom, 27 November 2006. DDD
SIGNUM SIGCD114 [48.24]
Experience Classicsonline

This should have been a fascinating release. It’s surely indicative of the frustrating nature of British organ culture than one of its most interesting truly historic instruments, now nearly 200 years old, is also just about the country’s least accessible organ. Housed in the ballroom of Buckingham Palace, one would require a royal invitation to be able to play it.

The organ was built in 1818 by Henry Lincoln (1788/9-1864). Let’s just stop a moment and put that into context. Friedrich Ladegast was born in the same year. Thirteen years later, Bätz built his organ in the Dom in Utrecht. It would be more than twenty years before Cavaillé-Coll would explode into the organ-building world. In English terms this organ is almost pre-historic. Of course there are older organs in the UK, much older. But this organ represents an important ‘missing link’, with its full compass pedal, three manuals, and extended bass compasses (to GG) on both the Great and Choir.

Who was Henry Lincoln?  He was a London organ builder who trained with Flight and Robson, who were primarily active building barrel organs. Lincoln’s father was also an organ builder, and after his apprenticeship, Henry went to work for the family firm. During his tenure the company produced a steady stream of instruments of all sizes. The organ featured on the present CD was in fact built for the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. When Queen Victoria ceased to use the Pavilion as a residence, the organ was, at her insistence, brought in no fewer than 56 crates to Buckingham Palace, where it was kept in storage until the completion of the ballroom in 1855. The 1826 inventory of the Brighton Pavilion mentions the organ as being "celebrated both for great powers and peculiar delicacy of tone”. It fell silent, due to neglect, during the 1920s, was subsequently vandalised, and was finally restored by William Drake in 2002. It sounds extraordinary. 

Unfortunately, most of the above information is gleaned from considerable searching of the internet, and in particular to the archives of PIPORG-L, and an excellent essay on the Lincoln organ at Thaxted (1821, an organ played by Holst, and now in shocking condition) by the Revd Canon Dr Nicholas Thistlethwaite. The history of the organ in the CD booklet runs to precisely 58 words. The biography of organist Joseph Nolan runs to 11 paragraphs - curiously failing to mention his participation in a promotional DVD for a well-known Dutch electronic organ manufacturer.  Unfortunately this is symptomatic of how seriously this project seems to have been taken. Quite apart from the extensive photographic documentation which should accompany such a CD - think of the wonderful examples by JAV among others - there are enormous gaps in the organ’s story which simply aren’t filled in. For example, when Gray and Davison moved and re-installed the organ in 1855, how much did they change? The National Pipe Organ Register quotes Gray and Davison’s ledger as having stated that they “completed Lincoln's contract”. Some pipework is presumably by them. How much did William Drake reconstruct?  This basic information is clumsily omitted. 

The great challenge for the player of historic organs, wherever they happen to be, is that of identifying, and embracing, the minefield of information they offer about specific corners of the literature. The Buckingham Palace organ is more relevant than most in this context, offering as it does fascinating information about the performance of a whole tradition of English organ composition, throughout the 18th century, and into the 19th. Much of this music, all but forgotten, is conceived for the type of organ being produced in London at the time, of which this is an extremely rare survival, and much also requires the long compasses offered by this organ. Again, a little context seems necessary here. There are around half a dozen substantial (more than one manual) GG (or FF) compass organs from this period, surviving in the UK. Of the three really sizeable organs, Thaxted is, as mentioned, in desperate need of restoration and the Bridge organ of Christ Church Spitalfields, is, as far as I know, still in storage awaiting restoration.

This leaves just the palace organ as potentially the ideal instrument for the music of William Russell, Samuel Wesley, John Keeble, and perhaps Thomas Adams. My knowledge of this literature is shamefully limited, but then the chances of playing or hearing it on the kind of organ for which it was intended are practically none. As the late Stephen Bicknell commented in 2001: “Even if one can locate the music, there are effectively no English organs on which to perform it. The full scale voluntary requires an instrument with three manuals, and the full potential cannot be realised without the contra-notes GG, AA, AA# and BB on Great and Choir and, presumably, the highly expressive and very tightly-enclosed short-compass Swell Organ [such as at Buckingham Palace]  that dominated English organ building from its introduction in 1712 through to the mid nineteenth century. The music of Russell is written with a GG-compass pedal board in mind, [At the Palace, the Great to Pedal is a sub-octave coupler, with additional pipes on separate soundboards to complete compass of certain stops] and a manual compass that goes up to f'''. These are not easy demands to meet - and of the organs of the period we only have fragmentary remains. The recent restoration of the Lincoln / Gray & Davison organ in the ballroom at Buckingham Palace is a significant step.”. 

Let me stress that this is the first recording of this extraordinary organ. A cursory glance at Joseph Nolan’s programme shows, unfortunately, an almost complete disregard for the nature of the instrument, and for the importance of the release. Only the Mendelssohn fits into the equation, and it must be said that Nolan judges the tricky accelerando in the first movement very well. Mendelssohn is known to have played duets on another organ at Buckingham Palace with his former schoolmate Prince Albert. It won’t surprise you to know that this link isn’t mentioned in the programme notes. With carefully argued reasoning, the Bach Passacaglia might also have been justifiable. The rest of the programme is, simply, miles off the mark, and Rawsthorne’s Dance Suite isn’t even worth recording. 

Readers of my reviews will know of my endless frustration when the aesthetic links between music and instrument haven’t been properly considered. This is a particularly bad example. While Nolan’s playing is perfectly acceptable, the concept of the CD, reducing the first recording of such an important instrument to commercially acceptable gift-shop fodder, is indefensible.

Chris Bragg



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