An Interview with Simon Preston [Bach Day BBC Proms 24 August 2008]

Written by: Ben Hogwood

Simon Preston

When considering English organists from the second half of the last century, no conversation can realistically be held without mention at least of Simon Preston. This interview took place midway between two Proms appearances this season – having played under Pierre Boulez in Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass and preparing for the first concert of Bach Day on Sunday 24 August.

For now he retains great enthusiasm for the Janáček performance. “I was absolutely mesmerised by Boulez, I’d never seen him conduct before. I’d worked with his mentor, Nadia Boulanger, years ago, and watching him rehearse for the Janáček it was obvious he had taken her ideas to heart. In rehearsal he persevered with a much slower tempo, and everything was dissected before being put back together. Then the night before the performance he put his foot on the accelerator, and the results were incredible.”

Preston’s first London appearance was also in Glagolitic Mass. “That was in 1962, I believe. It was David Willcocks who asked me to play at the Royal Festival Hall, and it was just after he had become director of the Bach Choir I believe, one of the first concerts he did with them. He asked me to play organ instead of their regular accompanist, which was very brave of him. It was something of a baptism of fire!”

Preston’s enthusiasm for the role is infectious. “It’s still a tricky number. There is a certain excitement, as I believe the whole piece builds up to that moment [the organ solo]. It’s very exciting, and I believe it as firm evidence of an operatic approach on the part of the composer. To be absolutely frank it’s not so difficult to play, but the pedals are difficult to play at a pace. By and large it’s straightforward, it’s just that the writing is very exposed, some of the parts lie very exposed and it’s very easy to clip the wrong notes on your way past!”

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). in a 1748 portrait by Elias Gottlob Haußmann (1695-1774)

A tendency of orchestral concerts using the Royal Albert Hall has been for the organ to be too loud, often drowning out complete sections of the orchestra. However Preston overcame this problem in performance. “I had rather focussed on it, as I had a suspicion Boulez would pull me up sharp if there was an issue. After the dress rehearsal Roger Wright came over and said, ‘It’s absolutely splendid but could you add a little something for the final two chords’, which was what I had actually planned to do anyway, so it worked out well! We had to go back and do some patching [for Deutsche Grammophon], but really the performance went very well. The chorus were wonderful, the orchestra was very sharp, and I thought the tenor was especially splendid.”

Simon Preston was among the first to play the restored Royal Albert Hall instrument. “That’s right, I played it pretty much when it was finished, and played in the last night in 2004. We did the Samuel Barber Toccata festiva, with its cadenza, which is for feet alone! Leonard Slatkin was conducting that, and I had already recorded it with him and the St Louis Symphony Orchestra so I remember it going very well.”

Preston also recorded a CD soon after the restoration, released on Signum Classics, with a typically eclectic programme. “I hope that the music on it was rather suitable – that Mendelssohn arrangement by W. T. Best was especially pertinent, as he was one of the organists who opened the Royal Albert Hall organ. The Mendelssohn piece opened that concert, and there was some Schumann as well I believe.”

The Royal Albert Hall's organ

With the organ such a revered instrument, are there any challenges peculiar to the Albert Hall alone? “The challenge is that it just is so big! It’s only got four manuals but there are an enormous number of ranks and pipes, the size is so vast! The biggest problem I think is trying to make a proper sound, and by that I mean mixing up the geographical sound so that it doesn’t sound too loud from the top left, and sounds evenly across the board.”

Preston’s Bach Day concert opens with an obvious piece, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV565). However, Preston admits, “That wasn’t my choice. Roger Wright said ‘You’ve got to start with that or I’m afraid we have to find someone else’, so I have to start with it whether I like it or not! My feeling is that it’s almost certainly not by Bach, I don’t believe it sounds like anything he wrote. I see Roger’s point of view though, people will see that at the head of the programme and they will hopefully want to come and see the concert.”

Going on to talk about the Toccata and Fugue, he says, “It does tend to rely rather on the organ one is playing it on. I recorded it on a very small two-manual organ when I recorded the complete works for Deutsche Grammophon. This was a vividly constructed instrument, and the sound felt as if it was glittering, the action was very responsive and the staccato very rewarding. That was the most satisfactory thing for me, playing it on a small organ I found I got a lot more out of it, though on a big organ you do have a chance to use the space. So in that respect I’m looking forward to playing it at the Albert Hall.”

The rest of the recital is made up of the ‘St Anne’ Prelude and Fugue, its sections sandwiching carefully chosen Bach pieces. Discussing the composition of his recital, Preston says, “I thought the next piece is going to be definitely by Bach! The Clavierübung was the great collection, and I thought the best thing to do was to take music from that as an opposite to the Toccata and Fugue. I’m playing the ‘St Anne’ Prelude and the three pieces in between. Those are very interesting pieces that sound well on the Albert Hall organ, especially the ‘Aus tiefer Not’, with its double pedalling. Those pieces are in the key of E minor, and then to get back to the E flat major of the ‘St Anne’ Fugue I inserted the ‘Duetto’, which makes a logical move back I think.”

I ask if Simon thinks we have become rather complacent about Bach’s organ music, performing the ‘famous’ pieces at the expense of other equally enjoyable works. “I think that’s probably true. Even with something like the ‘Gigue’ Fugue, I would say it’s again doubtful that it’s by Bach! But I do think it is a good thing to mix up the popular with the less familiar. The ‘Aus tiefer Not’ chorale is a full organ sound, it’s in six parts with the double pedal, and I’m really hoping the audience will respond to it. The ‘Vater Unser’ is also theologically a sound piece, as you have themes that fit into each other all the time in the form of a canon. It may be though that it’s more fun to the player than the listener. You can follow the composer’s mind.”

With Simon Preston’s comprehensive discography I’m curious to know if there are works he still wishes to record. “There always are, but people aren’t interested unless it’s popular, so it’s difficult to suggest to record companies. There are some Joseph Jongen pieces, such as the Symphonie concertante, that I think would be fantastic with the Prommers – I think they would really respond to it. Maybe I’ll get the chance to do that sometime!”

As for projects he is currently working on, he is surprisingly candid. “There are no recordings I’m afraid – they seem to have dried up for the moment, so I haven’t got anything particular in mind. After Sunday I might sit down at some point, and I shall have to consider if I want to carry on playing for that much longer. I’m playing Messiaen’s Les corps glorieux in King’s College Cambridge next year, which will be special as it will be something of a homecoming. I’m also playing in Rome in October, I believe. I tend to take stock of where I am every now and then, and I think after the Bach Day concert will be a good time to do that!”

  • Simon Preston’s recital begins Bach Day at 4 p.m. on Sunday 24 August
  • BBC Proms

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