Dame Gillian Weir – Royal Albert Hall Organ

Written by: Colin Anderson

Dame Gillian Weir gives a recital on the Royal Albert Hall organ on 26 October, and has made the first recording on the restored instrument…

Expect something surprisingly rare at the Royal Albert Hall on October 26. “I don’t think there’s been a full-scale organ recital here before”, says Dame Gillian Weir, who became an organist “by mistake. I was always crazy about music and I started learning the piano. As a teenager I knew I wanted to be a musician. My mother sang in the local church choir and I was asked to help when they had a problem. I tried this monster. Having carefully prepared some stops I went back that evening and put on the obligatory gown and hat; I went in with people kneeling quietly and I tiptoed across the pedal-board, forgetting the organ was turned on. That was the beginning. I should have become another Victor Borge after that introduction! I decided to learn the organ properly, got a scholarship, and came to the Royal College of Music.”

Dame Gillian outlines her programme for the Albert Hall organ, an instrument that is a “one-off. It was made to be big enough to fill the hall: 112 decibels, or more now it’s been refurbished. Included is Liszt’s Ad nos, ad salutarem undam, “a huge work; I think of it as a Wagner opera. There are vast contrasts of emotion, of dynamic, and of speed.” And there’s a Rhapsody by Herbert Howells that is “very passionate; it was written during an air-raid. I chose the programme for the organ itself; you must think of an organ in its environment.”

Also being played is Charles Ives’s Variations on America (you’ll know the tune!); clue: “you can imagine the Queen dancing the tango. It’s a perplexing work. It reflects small-town life in America, like Huckleberry Finn. The opening suggests two brass bands meeting one other, with old-fashioned bandmasters, buttons polished to the nines, twirling their moustaches and batons.” Then more Liszt, St Francis Walking on the Waves, “a storm at sea, with 32-foot stops doing the waves and the tuba-stop doing the lightning. Thrilling!” What of the Hamburg Dance of Death? “Guy Bovet is a distinguished improviser and organist, with a sense of humour. He quotes themes from Wagner, Offenbach and Beethoven – from the softest sound to the loudest without drawing breath.” And there’s some Elgar: Nimrod. “I don’t normally play transcriptions but this is a celebratory programme for the organ and those who love the hall.”

Fascinating instrument, the organ, its copious pipes, stops and pedals. And organs differ greatly, as do the composers played on them. “With Bach it’s the transfer of the music’s architecture to the architecture of the organ; the most important thing is the counterpoint, the polyphony coming out clearly. With later music, Messiaen, colour matters.” Organists do lots of research, balancing clarity and tone, “putting these sounds into a memory bank so that you can try to recreate what you believe the composer wanted.” Does then an organ equate to the orchestra? “In symphonic terms and the weight of sound that the orchestra has, yes, and also in warmth and intensity.” And organists not only need virtuoso fingers but feet too, for the pedals: “some are curved, some are straight; it’s a nightmare, but one turns a nightmare into something fascinating. At first it seemed extraordinary and irksome, but then I found it very exciting making an organ change voices from one to another. An organist is orchestrator, conductor and performer.”

Dame Gillian has also made the first recording on the restored Albert Hall organ, a Priory CD (PRCD 859) that includes some of the works in the forthcoming recital; beautifully recorded, the hall’s space and the organ’s power are faithfully captured. Hopefully the proposed TV screens for the concert won’t take it downmarket – for Dame Gillian is a real musician. She enlightens me as to how £5 notes (reed cleaning) and talcum powder (sticky keys) form part of the kit-bag. And I get to see the console from the player’s position, the instrument that “evokes the grandeur of the Victorian era and is the heart of the parish hall of the nation.”

  • Recital at Royal Albert Hall, London, on 26 October
  • Royal Albert Hall
  • Gillian Weir
  • Priory
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 19 October 2005 and is reproduced here with permission

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