Gillian Weir – Royal Albert Hall Recital

Organ Sonata in G, Op.28 – Allegro maestoso
Fantasia on Ad Nos, ad Salutarem undam
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36 – Nimrod [transcribed Harris]
Rhapsody in C sharp minor, Op.17/3
Légends – No.2: St François de Paule marchant sur les flots [transcribed Rogg]
Variations on America
Trios Préludes Hambourgeois, Op.136 – No.3: Hamburger Totentanz
Symphony No.1, Op.14 – Final

Dame Gillian Weir (organ)

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 26 October, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Elgar’s G major Sonata is ideally suited to the Royal Albert Hall organ, and its first movement made a fine opening to this recital. Dame Gillian Weir’s notes referred to the ‘orchestral’ nature of thesonata, which has, indeed, been orchestrated – by Gordon Jacob. But in such confident playing as Dame Gillian’s, the music’s innate integrity shone forth and the performance was thoroughly enjoyable.

It was a pity we didn’t have the whole sonata, since we might then have been spared Liszt’s interminable Fantasia on Ad Nos, ad Salutarem undam, which, despite the fervent advocacy it received here, was not slow to outstay its welcome. Based on a chorale from Meyerbeer’s “Le Prophète”, its episodic structure and meandering manner do not make for a satisfying whole, and theformidable technical challenges seem, finally, to be to little purpose.

Dame Gillian did not seem wholly comfortable in William Harris’stranscription of Elgar’s Nimrod – indeed she made a whollyuncharacteristic slip at one point – which surely needs the sonority of the orchestra; finely though it was registered on this organ, the string stops are no real substitute for the real thing.

Howells’s Rhapsody in C sharp minor was written in York during World War II whilst a Zeppelin raid was in progress; the dark, troubled hue of this music undoubtedly reflecting harrowing times. Dame Gillian’s rendering had all the requisite intensity and passion.

Another Liszt composition again failed to reveal the composer at his best, but this was due to the fact that he never intended St François de Paule marchant sur les flots for the organ. Liszt was, of course, a great transcriber of others’ music, but Lionel Rogg’sversion of Liszt’s piano piece does not work since the rippling figuration demands the kind of attack and articulation that an organ, by its very nature, cannot provide. It was, however, extremely well played.

Two pieces in a more ‘light-hearted’ vein then followed – and it was good to have such a varied diet on the programme.

Charles Ives’s hilarious Variations on ‘America’ (also known as “God save the Queen”) stems from the composer’s youth – he was seventeen when he wrote it, though I suspect some of the ‘naughty’ passages were made even more so by Ives when he was older. Dame Gillian, I think, misjudges one or two moments by making agogic pauses to make a ‘point’. It is more effective to play it ‘straight’, as her poker-faced delivery of the theme made clear. In any event, it is a very funny piece, which Dame Gillian dispatched with flair and panache. And one didn’t for a moment hanker after William Schuman’s orchestration of it.

Guy Bovet’s Hamburger Totentanz is also guaranteed to raise a smile with its sly quotations from Offenbach, Beethoven and Wagner over a crescendo-driven ostinato, rather in the manner of Ravel’s Boléro. Dame Gillian’s command of both music and instrument was quite compelling.

The finale from Vierne’s Organ Symphony No.1 made for a rousing conclusion to a recital which, as ever with this player, wascharacterised by a very special sense of communication; something that is difficult to achieve from an instrument that Herbert Howells described as “intractable”. Dame Gillian has recently recorded on the Royal Albert Hall organ for Priory.

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