Pulling out all the stops

Simon Preston | Royal Festival Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

Nobody seems able to remember when the Festival Hall organ was last used for a solo recital. On Friday evening, the stalls and terrace were packed for Simon Preston's launch of a new series - only four recitals, it's true, but the important thing is that they are at 7.30pm, not the twilight hour of 5.55, as they used to be. They are also being recorded by BBC Radio 3. The organ recital, at last, has been accepted as an event on the level of orchestral concerts.

Nobody seems able to remember when the Festival Hall organ was last used for a solo recital. On Friday evening, the stalls and terrace were packed for Simon Preston's launch of a new series - only four recitals, it's true, but the important thing is that they are at 7.30pm, not the twilight hour of 5.55, as they used to be. They are also being recorded by BBC Radio 3. The organ recital, at last, has been accepted as an event on the level of orchestral concerts.

The console has been updated, though a major overhaul of the pipework is yet to come. Which didn't prevent a dramatic moment of anticipated disaster before the final chord of Widor's Toccata, as Preston swiftly checked that all the stops were out for a last brilliant blast.

The instrument still looks one of the prettiest designed in modern times, with its asymmetrical ranks of pipes of assorted materials and colours all gently illuminated against the cavernous chamber which houses them. The arrangement not only looks picturesque, but makes for exciting stereophonic aural effects, which Preston exploited mischievously in Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, hopping between all four manuals in the Fugue.

By way of a relaxed interlude, he followed it with Jehan Alain's "Deuxiÿme Fantaisie" - colourful if subdued, and of no great musical consequence - before his own Toccata, which is based on Bach's, though surreptitiously enough for most listeners not to notice. A showy, physically exuberant piece, it could have been yet more dashing a fraction faster.

Then before the interval, Joseph Jongen's "Sonata Eroica", a showpiece in the French Romantic tradition, with imposing fanfares and flourishes before a set of variations on an archaic, folklike theme, ending with a fugue. Preston rattled this off - no mean feat on an organ that speaks right in your face, without the cover of a church's echoing acoustic.

He also tore through the Toccata at the end of Widor's Fifth Symphony at a fair lick. In the variations of the first movement he seemed to be demonstrating all the variety the organ was capable of, while letting smooth phrasing go by default, and in the charming pastorale-like second movement he sometimes cornered stiffly - a common organ-player's vice.

Still, Preston, at 60, is patently a nifty player, and his encore - Bossi's "Etude symphonique" - found his feet flying about the pedal board as fast as many organists' fingers. All credit to him for entertaining us for two hours, and showing off the many beauties of this instrument so clearly.

The next recital in the Royal Festival Hall series is given by Dame Gillian Weir on 26 January 2001

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