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Variations on America – Organ Spectacular
John Philip SOUSA (1854-1932)
The Stars and Stripes Forever (1896) [4:04]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Danse macabre, Op 40 (1874) (transcr Lemare) [8:31]
Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Variations on America (1891) [9:24]
Dudley BUCK (1839-1909)
The Last Rose of Summer, Op 59 (1877) [12:21]
Enrico BOSSI (1861-1925)
Étude symphonique, Op 78 (1897) [5:00]
Edwin Henry LEMARE (1865-1934)
Andantino in D flat major ‘Moonlight and Roses’(1888) [4:28]
Alexandre GUILMANT (1837-1911)
Organ Sonata No 1 in D minor, Op 42 (1875) [22:25]
Simon Preston (organ)
rec 1988, Methuen Memorial Music Hall, Boston, USA
ELOQUENCE 482 8101 [66:32]

This ‘spectacular’ recital first appeared in the original set of releases in Decca’s 1990 relaunch of its Argo imprint. The re-emergence of this legendary name came with a bold mission statement included in each booklet: “Argo seeks to explore music in four specific areas- choral, organ, British and American.” At a stroke the present disc fulfilled three quarters of that remit. Its reappearance now on Australian Eloquence addresses in part another aim – to restore to currency all of the organ recordings made by Simon Preston for Argo between 1963 and 1990. In fact ‘Variations on America’ is unique among these reissues as it’s the only real example from Preston of a ‘Showpiece’ recital, that is a concert of virtuosic and entertaining organ works designed to show off a particular instrument, in this case the amazing organ of the Methuen Memorial Concert Hall in Boston. So the repertoire here inevitably veers away from the more ‘serious’ fare Preston recorded in the 1960s and 1970s. if one’s sensibilities can withstand some of the rather ‘schmaltzy’ items here, the hour spent with this disc is well spent.

Like many such instruments, the Boston organ has an engaging history which is entertainingly retold by Edward J Sampson in the booklet note. It was initially commissioned by the president of the Boston Music Hall Association, one Jabez Baxter Upham, in 1857; his intention being that America’s first concert organ would be erected in his city. The builder entrusted with the contract was the German Wackler company. The construction was delayed however by a combination of contrary circumstances which included the disappearance of the contract and the start of the American Civil War! Even when the huge instrument was completed, its transportation to the New World proved anything but straightforward and it wasn’t until late 1863 that ‘The Great Organ’ was finally inaugurated. It quickly became the focus of local musical activity although that state of affairs was short-lived- the foundation of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1881 presaged a swift reduction in its stature before it was ultimately removed and placed in storage in 1884. Years later it was bought at auction by a local scion and a grand concert hall was built to house it in Methuen, MA. The instrument was comprehensively modernised in the 1940s by the Aeolian-Skinner company.

It was certainly a canny choice by Argo for this album. The Decca engineers certainly did it justice 30 years ago and it sounds as fresh and spectacular today as it did on its day of release. Inevitably with such a grand instrument there are clearly huge colouristic choices available to organists and Simon Preston takes full advantage of these in a programme clearly designed to show it off to the max. So what of the music and the playing?

The ‘lollipops’ selected invariably display satisfying and generally pretty tasteful quasi- orchestral effects. This is especially true in Edwin Lemare’s dazzling transcription of Saint-Saëns ubiquitous Danse Macabre, while Preston’s engaging delivery of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever at times hints at the sound of the fairground while judiciously avoiding anything approaching true vulgarity. There are two examples of the kind of ‘schmaltz’ that would have been familiar to and enjoyed by American audiences towards the end of the nineteenth century; Dudley Buck was very much the local Boston organ ‘hero’, his Variations on the ‘Last Rose of Summer’ is technically well-formed, ultimately over-long and certainly rather saccharine, a criticism which can equally be applied to Lemare’s own Andantino. Preston does his best to breathe life into both, the pastel shades of these sepia-tinted period pieces are certainly fully projected.

Charles Ives’ very different set of Variations lends its name to the disc. These teenage experiments are splendidly performed and recorded; they emerge excitingly from the speakers; goodness knows how his 1890s audience would have reacted !

The one extended ‘serious’ work on the programme, Guilmant’s First Sonata receives a towering performance from Preston. Its finale may be less well known than Widor’s famous Toccata but it is equally thrilling and is brilliantly captured here. It ends the recital on an appropriately uplifting note.

And thus the disc can be warmly recommended to those who wish to hear this superb instrument, faithfully caught by the engineers in its natural context. It also offers a snapshot of Simon Preston’s considerable artistry in lighter fare. It is thus a desirable appendix to the other Preston discs (of arguably meatier repertoire) Eloquence have recently reissued to celebrate his 80th birthday in 2018.

Richard Hanlon



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