RFH Organ Recital Series – Gillian Weir (29 October)

Trio Sonata No.4 in E minor, BWV 528
Hamburger Totentanz (Trios Préludes Hambourgeois, Op.136/3)
Suite profane
Variations on ’America’
Liszt arr. Rogg
St François de Paule marchant sur les flots (Légends, S175/2)
Fantasia in F minor, K.608
Commotio, Op.58

Dame Gillian Weir (organ)

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 29 October, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

“God knows why one ever writes for the organ! It’s an intractable thing!” So wrote Herbert Howells who, of course, made a distinguished – and distinctive – contribution to the organ repertoire. But its “intractable” nature has long been recognised as an intrinsic difficulty in composing for the instrument. Dame Gillian Weir, in this first recital of this season’s “RFH Organ Series”, chose a typically varied programme suiting her own veryconsiderable skills and showing off the Royal Festival Hall’s organ to its best advantage.

Any drawbacks on this occasion were due to the inherent problems with the hall’s acoustic. It is such a dry – yes, intractable – one, that music conceived for the reverberant environs of a church or cathedral – as most organ music is – is at a disadvantage. Perhaps rather shrewdly, the first two items on the programme – those by Mozart and Bach – were not hampered by acoustical difficulties. Mozart’s Fantasia was conceived for a mechanical organ placed inside a clock. The resulting sound must originally have been restrained and delicate. Dame Gillian’s approach was anything but. Her conception was on a grand scale, making the outer movements’ indebtedness to Bach very clear. The lyrical central ’Andante’ was effectively phrased with organ-stops judiciously chosen. I did not, however, care for the use of the tremulant, which is a device that always needs carefuldeployment.

Debate still persists as to whether Bach’s Six Trio Sonatas were written for the organ at all. It is possible – even likely – that they were composed for a pedal harpsichord for Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedemann to hone his skills on. Nevertheless, the sonatas have become staples of the organist’s repertoire and remain challenges on the level of co-ordination between hands and feet, leaving aside interpretative considerations such as ornamentation and articulation. In the first movement, one could admire Weir’s dexterity and the interplay between parts. However, the pedals were not so well-balanced here or in the second movement. Each of the three elements needs to have equality. In the ’Andante’, there was delicacy of figuration and sensitive feeling of dialogue between the two manual ’voices’, but the final movement could have danced along with a little less inhibition.

Acoustical drawbacks first manifested themselves in Lionel Rogg’s transcription of one of Liszt’s fiendish piano works – St Francis of Paola walking on the waves – dating from 1863. The great John Ogdon was quoted in the programme as describing the ideal piano sonority for this piece as “an enthroned, golden sound, orchestral and organ-like”. Unfortunately, none of these ideals is possible to realise in the RFH. Opening with a mysterious phrase on the pedals, the piece builds to a veritable tempestuous climax, but chords that were cut off were met, inevitably, with deadening silence. Even a piano in this acoustic would have allowed for at least some atmospheric and necessary reverberation. One admired Dame Gillian’s handling of the organ and her facility in dealing with Liszt’s writing, but I’m afraid the piece didn’t really ’come off’ and I am not actually sure that Liszt’s conception transfers effectively to the organ.

Jean Françaix’s Suite profane, in five short movements, proved an effective contrast. If one were to describe the music as ’typically French’ that is not to deny its individual character – not least in its piquant harmonies. Weir produced some charming antiphonal effects in the ’Giocoso’ second movement, a gentle rocking barcarole, and all the virtuosity one could wish for in the dashing concluding toccata.

Sterner fare greeted us after the interval in Nielsen’s only major work for the organ – Commotio. In harmonic terms, the piece is seeking the key of C major, but one wishes that, at times, Nielsen had not chosen such labyrinthine routes to reach his goal. The opening certainly suggests the ’movement’ or ’current’ of the title – Dame Gillian likens it to the Danish sea – but again, a less clinical environment (and, dare I say it? instrument) would have allowed these waves to have registered to greater effect. The music falls into distinctive parts – two fugues surrounded by other sections that continue the sense of perpetual motion, eventually leading to the C major destination. It is fiendishly difficult to play and Dame Gillian’s affection for the piece was evident by her committed advocacy of it. I understand that an orchestration has been made of Commotio. This I should like to hear as it would undoubtedly clarify much of the inner-part writing that is all but submerged on the organ.

Charles Ives’s cheeky Variations on ’America’ (aka the British National Anthem!) were then played with wit and panache. Just occasionally, I wish Dame Gillian had not made so many agogic pauses and hesitations to make a ’point’. The piece is actually funnier if it is played ’straight’. Goodness knows what the New Haven congregation must have made of their seventeen-year-old organist’s invention – especially the remarkable passages where two keys are used simultaneously.

Finally, Weir dispatched Guy Bovet’s Hamburger Totentanz with considerable flair and dash. Described as an “organist’s Bolero’’, the piece did indeed built up from an initial ostinato into a rollicking climax, with various quotations – subtle and not so subtle – along the way, including an hilarious one from Beethoven’s Für Elise.

Dame Gillian Weir – surely the Grande Dame of today’s organists – displayed throughout her extraordinary sense of communication and her love of the organ and its music. It was good to see a large and enthusiastic audience appreciate her performance.

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