Organ launch concert, Royal Festival Hall, London – review

The poem set to music by Peter Maxwell Davies in his new piece celebrating the restored Royal Festival Hall organ poses several pertinent questions. Are you mechanical or is there a ghost in you? Are you a box of air, a hiss, a breeze? Are you a living forest, made of wood, metal and voice? The poem, by Jo Shapcott, leaves the questions open-ended, but Maxwell Davies’ A Wall of Music answers each with a resounding musical “yes”.

The purpose of this concert was not just to thank donors for facilitating the organ’s re-entry into London musical life after a long silence, but to show what it can do. Even if the programme didn’t allow the performers to “pull out all the stops” (the title of the inaugural two-week festival), it demonstrated that restoring the instrument has been worthwhile. Designed by Ralph Downes and renovated by its builders, Harrison & Harrison of Durham, the 60-year-old organ emerged with pleasingly bright upper tones, clarity in the bass and a lively kick. Such qualities are vital in a concert hall organ – even one as oddly shaped as this, more horizontal than vertical – but there was a suspicion on Tuesday that the sound it made didn’t quite fill the hall.

Max’s piece, featuring a 200-strong children’s choir and brass ensemble alongside the organ, was a bit of a mish-mash, but a short, singable one. John Scott’s Bach – the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor – sounded messy and exposed: this is clearly an organ for romantic and modern music rather than baroque, an impression confirmed by Jane Parker-Smith in Franck’s subtly coloured Fantaisie in A and Isabelle Demers in Dupré’s grandiloquent Prelude and Fugue in B.

While these showpieces – and the fairground flamboyance of Parker-Smith’s arrangement of the Liszt Mephisto Waltz No 1 – will have pleased organ fanatics, there was enough to stimulate the ordinary concert-goer too – principally Alison Balsom’s high-octane Bach Concerto in D (arranged for trumpet and organ) and John Tavener’s Monument for Beethoven for organ, brass and choir, completed before his death last November. By contrasting the organ’s bold sonority with the choir’s quietly affirmative chords, Tavener flattered both.

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