Peter Holder pays tribute to centenary composer Saint-Saëns with his Fantaisie No. 1, and also plays Widor, Liszt, J. S. Bach, and Meyerbeer

Le prophète – Coronation March [arr. W. T. Best]

J. S. Bach
Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV537

Symphony for Organ No.5 in F minor, Op.42/1 – I: Allegro vivace

Fantaisie No. 1 in E-flat

Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’

Peter Holder (Royal Albert Hall organ)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 4 September, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Anton Bruckner and Camille Saint-Saëns gave organ recitals here in 1871 (both the Royal Albert Hall’s and this Willis organ’s inaugural year) and the latter also in 1880; Peter Holder played works that Saint-Saëns had programmed. Holder, sub-organist at Westminster Abbey, was replacing Thomas Trotter, who withdrew because of an arm injury. The recital also marked the centenary of Saint-Saëns’s death.

The most substantial work was Liszt’s ‘Ad nos’ Fantasy and Fugue (based on a chorale from Meyerbeer’s opera Le prophète), one of the great Fantasies of the nineteenth century, up there with Schubert’s Wanderer and Schumann’s Fantasy in C. In the over-spacious acoustic of a cathedral, Liszt’s ‘Ad nos’ can sprawl, but Holder worked with the RAH’s resonance to make it seem almost tight. Perhaps Liszt could have reined in the central Adagio, and the composer certainly left nothing to chance in the closing peroration, but Holder caught the spirit and sheer bravado of Liszt’s heart-on-sleeve inspiration in some finely judged orchestral registration, including the thrilling fanfares on one of the instrument’s big trumpet stops (the Tuba mirabilis?). Following the Mander rebuild, completed in 2004, the instrument has unrivalled presence and immediacy, not just in spitting reeds and sizzling mixtures, but also in depth and distance of sound. I hadn’t heard this Liszt masterpiece in recital for years, and Holder’s virtuosity, imagination and awareness of its romantic idiom made this performance one to treasure.

Holder opened in grand, orotund style, with Meyerbeer’s challenging ‘Coronation March’ (lifted, like the Liszt, from Le prophète) arranged by W. T. Best, the organ’s inaugural recitalist. It spares nothing in bombast and confidence, and one wonders if Meyerbeer had any monarch in mind when writing it. Holder then turned to J. S. Bach, the C-minor Fantasia and Fugue, discreetly registered, and in the Fantasia section surprisingly Italianate and operatic. Charles-Marie Widor, who had also been on the list of the instrument’s celebrity recitalists, was represented by the first movement from his Fifth Organ Symphony, a set of variations that Holder used to display the Willis/Mander organ’s Cavaillé-Coll possibilities, which were as much to the fore in Saint-Saëns’s Fantaisie (a Proms premiere), the quiet echo effects giving as much an idea of the instrument’s size as its ‘plein jeu’.

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