Mstation Classical Reviews

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Mon, 29 Aug 2005

The Grand Organ of The Royal Albert Hall

First Recording of the Restored Organ

Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Fantasia and fugue on “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam” [28.11]

Franz LISZT arr. Lionel Rogg 

St Francis of Paola walking on the waves [10.26]

Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)

Rhapsody No 3 in C sharp minor [7.12]

Sir Hubert PARRY (1848-1918)

Toccata and Fugue (“The Wanderer”) [13.53]

John COOK (1918-1984)

Fanfare [4.26]

Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)

Nimrod [4.07]

Sir Edward ELGAR 

Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 in D [3.32]

Marcel LANQUETUIT (1894-1985)

Toccata in D major [5.01]

Dame Gillian Weir

rec Nov 2004, The Royal Albert Hall, London, United Kingdom


The organ in the Royal Albert Hall, the biggest in Great Britain and, at the time of its building in the 1870s, the biggest in the world, has been a British Institution for well over a century. Not all of this time has it been regarded favourably by the musical establishment. An instrument of such vast size is always difficult and expensive to maintain, and undoubtedly suffered from having less attention and money lavished on its upkeep than would have been ideal. For many years in recent decades it has been best known amongst organ aficionados for the vast quantities of air that leaked out of it before going anywhere near a pipe – huge swathes were silent for years and the full power of the organ could never be used. The recent major refurbishment and upgrade of the Royal Albert Hall has finally given reason and incentive to get the organ back into top condition. The work has been carried out by the famous London organ-building firm of Noel Mander and Co over a two year period and at a cost of more than £1.5M. This Priory disc is the first recorded results of that restoration.

There could not really have been any other choice than Dame Gillian Weir to make such a recording. She has been intimately associated with this organ for the whole of her career, being launched to prominence by stepping in at short notice to play the Poulenc organ concerto for a televised first Night of the Proms soon after she arrived at the Royal College of Music across the road, and has been the world’s most famous organist just about ever since. Her playing here has all the virtuosity and command that is to be expected of somebody so firmly at the top of their particular tree. Flair and style come naturally to Dame Gillian and the programme she has chosen to record (while in many respects odd) gives ample scope to these attributes.

All of the music dates from the period of the organ itself, so there is no Bach, which could be viewed as an unforgivable omission from any disc of organ music. On the other hand, the organ in the Royal Albert Hall does not do Bach well – the whole tonal scheme is wrong for the master’s music. This instrument was always intended to be as much a one-man orchestra as it was to be an organ and Dame Gillian’s programme has a heavy concentration on late 19th/early 20th century “orchestral” organ music with a few well-known bonbons thrown in for good measure. Most of the choices, other than the lollipops, are pretty well unknown. Certainly the Fantasia and fugue on “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam”  by Liszt, at 28 minutes and 11 seconds long is unlikely to be on most people’s top 20 listening lists. The Toccata and Fugue by Parry (the name “The Wanderer” is apparently given after the name of the composer’s yacht, but why is unknown) at nearly 15 minutes is equally dense and could not be described as “user friendly”. Both of these huge works show off the resources of the organ well – ranging as they do from the softest pianissimos to conclusions in organo pleno with the famous trumpet and pedal reed stops of the Albert Hall organ really powering forth in a blaze of noise.

There are two problems. Firstly, the music does all tend to sound rather the same. By the end of the middle third of the Parry it is hard to remember whether or not we are still listening to one of the long quiet bits of the Liszt/Rogg transcription of St Francis of Paola walking on the waves. A re-ordering of the programme to avoid all the substantial works at the beginning and all the lighter or better-known works at the end would have considerably improved the appeal of this disc to the non-specialist. Dame Gillian is right to have stuck out for a programme of serious music that shows the organ’s capabilities to the full, but this ordering makes heavy going of it for all but organ buffs. There is nearly a solid hour of heavy, largely Germanic romantic music before any relief in the form of John Cook’s jaunty Fanfare of 1954. The two pieces of Elgar are as well known as any organ arrangements, but their juxtaposition in the programme is unaccountable. Additionally, in the long lines of Nimrod that Dame Gillian sounds a bit tired. The big swell at the end, doesn’t really surge into a breaking wave and the sound of the tutti tune is rather harsh. The same must be said of the “big tune” in the Pomp and Circumstance March No 1. This sounds too lacking in chorus and too depended on reeds. The tonal quality is somewhat akin to many of the large American organ’s that this writer usually criticises as “brash”. The tempo is also far too fast. The real find of the programme is the Toccata by Marcel Lanquetuit (1894-1985) who was organist of Rouen Cathedral for most of his career. Similar to the famous Widor toccata beloved of wedding couples, but not hackneyed like that work, this shows the sheer virtuosity of Dame Gillian Weir in glorious form. It is quite a spectacular ending.

The second problem is the Priory Records policy of recording everything with a single microphone. This is allegedly to give the impression that a listener has when sitting in the hall, and the microphone itself is undoubtedly good gear. The downside is that there is less control over the recorded sound, which our ears do for us automatically in a live situation. The capture quality and sound spectrum just isn’t up to what a decent modern stereo is capable of reproducing, and invariably some of the depth and colour that could be obtained from careful use of multiple microphones for different purposes is lost. As one example, the lack of ambient microphones positioned at the back of the hall just to pick up that tiny residual sound of the space itself is lost, and it is noticeable. There is less feel of the “tangible” aspects of sound than could have been gained.

This is an important release in terms of British music history, and there is much to enjoy. A few quibbles about the programming and the order, as well as a not entirely satisfactory recorded sound do give cause for reservations. Organ buffs will want to own this disc come what may; for the rest of us, the live experience will probably be more enjoyable.

Peter Wells

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