RFH Organ 50th-Birthday Concert (23 March)

Toccata festiva, Op.36
Concerto in G minor for organ, strings and timpani
Suite in G for organ and strings
Symphony No.1, Op.42

Nicolas Kynaston, John Scott, Thomas Trotter & Dame Gillian Weir (organ)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
David Hill

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 March, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Whatever the term is for a collection of organists, it was certainly applicable on the occasion of the 50th-birthday of the Royal Festival Hall organ, which was designed by Ralph Downes and built by Harrison & Harrison. Indeed, the organ-world at-large appeared to be on-hand to commemorate the anniversary of an instrument whose distinctive Anglicised Cubist facade is complemented by its unmistakable tone – once described by the organist Piet Kee as “… a valuable bridge leading from the Classical to the Romantic”. The concert consisted of four works with orchestra, each played by a leading organist of the present era and partnered by a well-prepared London Philharmonic under the enthusiastic direction of David Hill.

Thomas Trotter opened proceedings with a sparkling account of Barber’s Toccata Festiva (1960). Composed to mark the inauguration of the organ at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, this is a display piece with the sustained power of a one-movement symphony. If the incisive opening idea and its lyrical successor are not among Barber’s most potent inspirations, they are welded into an effective whole; the highlight being a cadenza for pedals which as breathtaking to watch as it must be to play.

John Scott was next at the console for Poulenc’s Organ Concerto (1938). The only such work to have entered the standard repertoire (especially now that Handel’s concertos are all but relegated to the Baroque fringe), it remains a fascinating conflation of the pious, the worldly and the near-farcical – characteristics whose proportions are faultlessly judged over its unpredictable but unerring onward course. Scott could have made more of the Gothic portentousness of the opening as it punctuates the music at strategic points, but the central slow section was ineffably tender, and the fairground episode near the close was played up winningly.

Nicolas Kynaston has made a distinguished contribution to organ music across a range of styles, and did his best to make Respighi’s early Suite in G (1903) interesting. Yet apart from the berceuse-like demureness of the Pastorale, this is an earthbound piece where even Respighi’s familiar pre-Classical stylisation get in the way of more personal expression. Perhaps the organists made their own choice of music: otherwise, Kenneth Leighton’s Organ Concerto – scored for the same forces as Poulenc, to which it would have made a telling complement – might have been considered as a British contribution to the evening.

Dame Gillian Weir brought proceedings to a close with the First Organ Symphony by Alexandre Guilmant (1878). Very much an organist’s composer, Guilmant makes up for what his music lacks in depth or distinctiveness with a very Gallic charm, as in the elegant central Pastorale (another one!), and an incisive but rarely overstated virtuosity. The lively and persuasively wrought opening Allegro typified this approach, its imposing introduction transformed in a finale whose roof-raising apotheosis set the seal on another fine performance.

So, an enjoyable evening which left the organ fraternity in raptures and your reviewer thinking that regular such events could yield a fair number of organ-and-orchestra works little known but enticing to the general public. With a roster of organists such as has been appearing at the RFH this season, the opportunities are there for musicians and listeners alike.

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