BBC Proms: Organ Recital 1

BBC Proms: Organ Recital 1
Bach and Improvisations
Martin Baker
Royal Albert Hall, 1 August 2021

Yet again, the BBC Proms has programmed an organ recital at a time (11:45 on a Sunday morning) when most organists are at work. A modest audience was the obvious result. It was originally intended to have been given by Oliver Latry, organist at Notre Dame but Covid-related travel problems resulted in Martin Baker stepping in at short notice to replicate the planned programme of Bach and improvisations. The Royal Albert Hall opened in 1871, along with the mighty Father Willis organ, then powered by two steam engines and now magnificently restored by Manders. Subsequent alterations and rebuilds have now resulted in 9,999 pipes that would stretch for nine miles if laid end to end. Bizarrely, it has its own Twitter account!

This year’s Proms season pays homage to the anniversary of the hall and the organ, with a forthcoming second solo organ recital and three uses of the organ with orchestra, one of which was on the First Night, reviewed here, the others on 6 September and 7 September. Martin Baker’s programme consisted of three well-known Bach pieces, two followed by his own improvisations based on the preceding Bach piece, the concert ending with an Improvisation on English Melodies, inspired by a similar improvisation given by Anton Bruckner (one of the organists in the opening recital series) during the first of his six recitals in early August 1871. After the success of these concerts he was invited to give recitals in South London’s Crystal Palace, one which attracted an audience of 70,000. Presumably, it wasn’t on a Sunday morning. Incidentally, the Crystal Palace was relocated glass building which housed the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, the proceeds of which helped to fund the Royal Albert Hall.

Martin Baker’s opened the Prelude and (‘St Anne’)Fugue in E flat major (BWV 552) with a relatively modest registration, but RAH standards, his clear articulation allowing the contrapuntal line to shine through. However, he couldn’t resist the array of stops available to him and began to build up the volume subtly, but noticeably, in both Prelude and Fugue, as the textures got thicker and the pedal in particular, became increasingly thick and boomy. His improvisation took fragments of the Bach piece which he intertwined with his own flights of fancy. The jaunty opening motif unfolded over a pulsating bass line, before some of the growlier sonorities of the organ were explored before, surprise, surprise, the full forces of the organ. Of course, one of the advantages of improvisation is that the choice of sounds (and, of course, the notes) is entirely up to the organist so we had the chance to hear sounds that no composer would ask for. It declined to gentle murmerings out of which emerged the sotto voce opening bars of the Fantasia and Fugue in G major (BWV 572), also known as the Pièce d’orgue. 

In terms of a balanced programme it made sense to perform this the Pièce d’orgue quietly, with even the usually magistic-sounding five-voice central movement played on a subdued registration. The filigree outer sections of the three-section piece were mere tinkles. The improvisation that followed was similarly light in texture, with more tinkles emerging from deep inside the vast organ case. It is unlikely that, from the console, Martin Baker could hear many of the sounds he was producing as the sound goes way over the head of the player.

Baker segued his improvisation into the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor (BWV 582), which opened with the quietest of pedal registrations before building to a powerful, if slightly romantic, interpretation. The performance of the fugue was particularly impressive. Here, as in all three Bach pieces, Baker’s use of subtle rhetoric gestures made sense to the structure of the music without adding to any romantic performance ideas.

The final improvisation was based on English Melodies. Baker sensibly avoided the more hackneyed choice of tunes and related most of his melodies to the Proms and the Royal Albert Hall, with notable ‘contributions’ in spirit from Elgar. The Pomp and Circumstance March . and Nimrod featured strongly, as did William Croft’s St Anne hymn tune (usually sung with the words ‘O God our help in ages past’), which gave Bach’s Fugue in E flat its English nickname of the St Anne fugue. Also included in an often honky-tonk style were snippets of What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor?, Stairway to Heaven, and what I am told was the theme tune to Coronation Street. It just about avoided turning into the almost inevitable French Toccata finale with a big pedal tune, and ended with the massed unison note that ends Elgar Organ Sonata.