I first became aware of Robert Quinney when his Bach CDs (on the Coro label) were reviewed on BBC Radio 3, and they sounded marvellous. This Royal Festival Hall recital was the first time I’d heard him live, and I was even more impressed by the sheer voltage of his playing.
Bach may be the basis of any organist’s repertoire, but whole recitals of his music can linger between pleasure and self-improvement. This was not the case here, in which his superb technique and deep affinity with the pieces swept all before them. It also helped significantly that he had tailored his playing to the RFH acoustic – not nearly as dry as it was when the organ was first installed, but still with a short resonance – which gave him the freedom for some brisk speeds, crisp phrasing and some lyrical rubato without risking the music getting stuck in contrapuntal mud.
He started with a familiar bang, the D-minor Toccata and Fugue (which may not be by Bach), emphasising its show-stopping brilliance and covering the note-spinning dips in inspiration with an array of echo effects surging through the width of the instrument and with some dashing decorations liberally adding to the panache. In marked contrast was the sober ‘Our Father’ Chorale Prelude, a five-part masterpiece in which the tune has an immanence that radiated through Quinney’s stylishly articulated playing of the protective counterpoint, the whole enhanced by his subtle registration and a gently propulsive pedal role.
The eloquent registrations in the Four Duets seemed to come from pipe-work lurking at the back of the console. During the interval a couple of organists wondered why he had programmed what are in effect two-part inventions, but Quinney’s way with detail of line and decoration confirmed their abstract pleasures. I’m sure the F-major Duet exists in another context, but I can’t place it. He played the ‘Leipzig’ Prelude and Fugue (in C) with an attractive, rather Italianate lightness and wit that was blown away by the majesty of the ‘Wedge’ Prelude and Fugue (E-minor) and the revelatory clarity of his account of the ‘Vom Himmel hoch’ Canonic Variations (which Stravinsky was moved to arrange for choir and orchestra).
The final work, the G-major Prelude and Fugue, played from memory, was a console-melting sensation, in which man and machine became one in a blistering display of virtuosity that showed off the organ in all its glory, taken even further by Quinney’s thrilling encore, Marcel Dupré’s arrangement of the Sinfonia from Cantata 29. What a great recital this was.