Pipe dreams on the South Bank

Christopher Wood meets the man breathing new life into a much-neglected instrument
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The Independent Culture

Although many people are still married and buried to the strains of the organ, most would rather attend their own funeral than sit through a whole concert played on the instrument. Some music lovers even question whether the sound it makes can be described as music, and the Royal Festival Hall bowed to the inevitable when, in 1989, dwindling audience figures forced it to abandon the organ recital series which had been a feature for 35 years.

Although many people are still married and buried to the strains of the organ, most would rather attend their own funeral than sit through a whole concert played on the instrument. Some music lovers even question whether the sound it makes can be described as music, and the Royal Festival Hall bowed to the inevitable when, in 1989, dwindling audience figures forced it to abandon the organ recital series which had been a feature for 35 years.

But now the RFH organ series is back, with four leading exponents aiming to win converts to what some still optimistically call the king of instruments. The first is Simon Preston, whose long career has included stints at Westminster Abbey and Christ Church, Oxford. His concert this Thursday opens with the most famous organ piece ever written, Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, and closes with a rare performance of the whole of Widor's Fifth Symphony, the last movement of which is, as Preston says, "the second most famous piece written for the organ" (the one to which you walk out of the church and into married life).

Each concert features a well-known piece, plus something by Bach as audience sweeteners. "People who are not used to listening to the organ do find it rather strange," confesses Simon Preston. "They worry whether it isn't suddenly going to become very loud."

A member of the local church choir, and with an organist uncle, Preston was familiar with the instrument from his earliest years. "At a certain age, it is attractive to find you can make more noise than anyone else," he remembers. "Power comes into it. It must be rather the same for conductors. And I was fascinated by the mechanics of it - like other small boys are interested in cars."

This touches upon a perennial criticism of the organ: that it is a mechanical device offering little outlet for a musician's creativity. Is it an inhuman instrument? "It can sound unearthly," is how Preston puts it. "Which is not to say it doesn't have expressive qualities. There are ways of phrasing - how you approach and release the note - which make a great deal of difference. It creates the feeling that the organ is a living instrument."

And what about subtlety? Is such a huge instrument capable of nuances? "By varying the sounds you've got at your command, using stops, you can create many different palettes of sound," Preston says. "If you're clever and dextrous this can be done very musically. The organ also relies tremendously on the acoustics of the building it's in. Sometimes the acoustics swamp the subtlety. At other times the acoustic is so dry it doesn't sound subtle or even musical any longer."

One difficulty the organ poses for the player, rather than the listener, is where to practise. Preston is lucky enough to have access to organs at Tonbridge School Chapel and St John's Smith Square, although sessions must be booked to avoid clashes with other activities.

He was consulted during the construction of these two organs, and they rank among his favourites to play. Both featured in Preston's recent recording of Bach's complete organ works, a mammoth project on 14 CDs that took him all over Europe. "Bach is the organ at its best," he says. "The last things I recorded for the cycle were on an instrument in Trondheim built by an organ builder Bach knew. To record the Clavier Ãœbung III on that organ was a real revelation. It was in a pitch used in Bach's time, and it felt as if everything was being newly created, as if Bach had just sent me the music."

The Festival Hall organ, which cost all of £51,000 in the early Fifties, is notable for its versatility. "It's got a terrific variety of sounds," says Preston. "It's possible to play Bach accurately as well as everything since. It's also very large, with more than 100 stops - the average for a large organ is around 70."

Recent renovation work has brought the console up to date, so that the organist can programme the stop settings necessary for a whole concert electronically, rather than having to fumble around during the music.

Such innovations are what keeps the instrument alive, says Preston. "The organ is constantly reinventing itself. If it's not a composer who comes along and sees other possibilities - as Messiaen did - then it's something like this business of having memories, which has liberated the organ to a great degree. There are not many instruments that can boast that they've been around as long as the organ. It seems to keep on going."

Simon Preston, Royal Festival Hall (020 7960 4242), Thursday at 7.30pm. His CD recording of Bach's organ works is on Deutsche Grammophon.

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