RAH Organ, Inaugural Concert, Royal Albert Hall, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Three decades ago, the organ builder Noel Mander, now aged 90, was present for Robert Munns's inaugural recital at the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints in Exhibition Road, a pebble's throw from the Royal Albert Hall and Sir Malcolm Sargent's adjacent apartment. In Sargent's day, the Albert Hall's organ was serviced by Harrison & Harrison, who shipped in the famous console and wired the thing up. Exit steam engines; enter electronic blowers, plus 2,000 extra medial pipes, with some loss of differentiation but numerous musical gains.

Three decades ago, the organ builder Noel Mander, now aged 90, was present for Robert Munns's inaugural recital at the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints in Exhibition Road, a pebble's throw from the Royal Albert Hall and Sir Malcolm Sargent's adjacent apartment. In Sargent's day, the Albert Hall's organ was serviced by Harrison & Harrison, who shipped in the famous console and wired the thing up. Exit steam engines; enter electronic blowers, plus 2,000 extra medial pipes, with some loss of differentiation but numerous musical gains.

Now newly revamped by Noel's son John Mander, the RAH organ has 9,997 pipes, according to David Briggs, the first of the Inaugural Concert's trio of articulate recitalists. Briggs is a master improviser and gamely attacked the Purcell-Britten Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra theme as the launching pad for variations seasoned by Briggs's favourite French repertoire: much Messiaen-cum-Hakim, even a whisper of Vierne's Naiades, wrapped up in the idiosyncratic Briggs manner.

Briggs is a brilliant, clever, versatile performer - his recent opening of the fabulously voiced Blackburn Cathedral organ was a revelation - but I can't say I found these thick chordings displayed - as he hoped - the organ's precise fine detail much better than his clogged blasting of the Sinfonia from Bach's Cantata No 29 - an inspired choice totally blown away with thick textures. A snippet of Sweelinck, J G Walther, Bull or Buxtehude would have done the job better. And why - an insult to this full-house turnout of all-age organ fanatics - was there no organ specification in the programme?

Thomas Trotter came next, serving up with Richard Hickox and the RPO a desultory, unimaginative reading of Poulenc's Organ Concerto, overegged yet dully played, but wholly atoned for by John Scott's fabulously disciplined, inspired choice of lucid diapasons, supporting woods and informing tuba for Liszt's Prelude and Fugue on "BACH". With stupendously intelligent use of rubato, Scott - shortly to leave St Paul's for St Thomas's, New York - turned this into an operatic drama: you could sense Mephistopheles lurking in the wings.

Trotter, too, played the Liszt inspiringly at Birmingham's Symphony Hall this spring; likewise Barber's Toccata Festiva was given a scintillating performance here, with Hickox on flaring good form. It was this second half, notably the fascinating Organ Symphony that a young Aaron Copland penned for Nadia Boulanger, that magnificently met the requirements. Mander's ripe revamp, with its new "lungs", emerged in true colours - vivid, varied, perky, impudent - and Scott plus Hickox thumped home with a humdinger of a performance.

Comments