BBC Proms: Nathan Laube, organ

BBC Proms
Nathan Laube, organ
Royal Albert Hall, 28 August 2022

Wagner: Grand March
Franck: Grande pièce symphonique
Alkan: Scherzando from 11 Grands préludes
Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor

Yet again, the BBC Proms powers-that-be have chosen the most inappropriate time for an organ recital – a Sunday morning – when most organists are attempting to earn their keep. Although working organists can listen on catch-up, the sparse audience (sparse for the Royal Albert Hall that is, but sadly not for the average organ recital) reflected this strange programme planning. But there was also something about the programming of the concert itself which raised questions about the BBC’s approach to The Proms, which this year seems to be seen as a populist extension of Radio 2, rather than Radio 3.

The advertising for the concert stated that “When Royal Albert Hall’s ‘Father’ Willis organ thunders into action, the air itself seems to shake. It’s the musical soul of this great building and, with its 9,999 pipes, it’s the second largest organ in the UK. No Proms season is complete without a chance to hear it in full, majestic, flight”. I am not sure what sort of message this type of promotion is intending to give. But the focus on the power and majesty does rather reduce the importance of the extraordinary range of music that has been composed for the organ from at least the 14th century.

This year’s organ recital (yes, there is only one) was given by the Chicago-born organist Nathan Laube. His programme of “showpieces and transcriptions from the peaks of the Victorian organ repertoire” only included one piece actually composed for the organ. The other three pieces were transcriptions, including an enormous Liszt Piano Sonata that lasted well over half an hour, a hard listen even for most devoted lover of that sort of thing.

The opening transcription of Wagner’s Grand March was given a comparatively restrained performance, exploring the wide range of tone colours of the organ. It was a followed by Franck’s Grande pièce symphonique. It is the longest, but not the finest of his c1860 Six pièces although it has some lovely melodies and was the foundation of the French tradition of organ symphonies. But, at about 25′ long, it does rather overstay it’s welcome. That said, Laube’s performance was impressive, with superb control of articulation and control and choice of registrations. An unfortunate cypher on the final few chords was at least in the right key, but led to a delay while somebody disappeared into the organ’s innards to remove the offending pipe.

A transcription of the sparkling Scherzando from Alkan’s 11 Grands préludes, composed for a piano with organ-like pedals, was a short showpiece before the monumental Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor, transcribed by Nathan Laube and played from memory. The rather scary opening was aided by the weird sounding pedal harrumphs (which sounded even weirder on their, much, later return) and low organ groans but as the piece got going. Laube’s ability to draw luxuriant aural colours from the organ increasingly impressed me, particularly in the softer moments. Liszt is way outside my usual musical compass, so I didn’t know the piano original – but this sounded convincingly like an original organ work, albeit not one I would hasten to listen to again. But I did hasten to do just that, following the iPlayer repeat with the piano score. Not only did Liszt’s musical language and structure become more apparent, but I learnt to appreciate the extraordinary complexity of Laube’s transcription and his ability to play music of such technical virtuosity. Perhaps one day I will attempt to listen to the piano original.

The end was curious. Anybody listening online might have wondered if the entire audience had silently left (as a few actually did), such was the deathly silence before any applause. But this was as carefully orchestrated by Laube as his transcription had been. What they didn’t see was Laube’s right hand hovering over an upper manual. I probably wasn’t alone in dreading the thought that there might be yet another extended passage of meandering Liszt, but rather than lowering the hand onto the keys, it eventually and oh-so-slowly descended to a neutral position in a gesture that lasted for about a minute. I have often commented that performers should control when, and if, audiences applause, and this was a prime (if perhaps slightly pretentious) example.

As for the programme itself, I would have preferred one of the shorter and better Frank pieces and a piece that Liszt actually wrote for the organ.