Wednesdays at 5.55 Organ Recitals at the Royal Festival Hall
W Harry Hoyle
Clontarf Press 2018 Hardback. 230 pages, 235x156mm, ISBN 978-1-999685706
For many organ music lovers, the phrase Wednesdays at 5.55 will have a particular resonance. Between 1954 and 1989, London’s Royal Festival Hall held early evening organ recitals on the influential and controversial Harrison & Harrison organ, inaugurated in 1954. During those years there were a total of 545 organ recitals given by nearly 200 international organists attracting at its peak audiences of around 1500. This record of these recitals, and the music and performers involved, is very clearly a labour of love for the author, W Harry Hoyle. The publicity blurb sums up the book well – “Drawing on the Southbank Centre archive, private paper collections and the memories of many performers, in this comprehensive and engaging book he tells the story of how the series was planned, which organists performed, the repertoire they played and how the recitals were received by the press and by the public. He also reviews the social changes that led to the ending of ‘Wednesdays at 5.55’ and the search for the best way to present the highlights of the organ repertoire on this unique instrument“. And that is exactly what it does, in an absorbing and informative read. Continue reading →
Renée Anne Louprette, organ Royal Festival Hall, 19 September 2018
JS Bach: Prelude and Fugue in G
Marin Marais: Suite from Alcyone (arr. Louprette)
Jehan Alain: Variations sur un thème de Clément Jannequin
Ad Wammes: Mytò
Nadia Boulanger: Improvisation from 3 Pièces
Duruflé: Suite, Op.5
The Royal Festival Hall’s ‘International Organ Series‘, most of which is made up of UK, rather than international organists, made up for that fact by replacing an indisposed UK performer with Renée Anne Louprette, an American organist who spent some of her student days in London. She has held posts in several important New York churches, alongside academic posts, and is now University Organist and Coordinator of the Organ Department at the Rutgers University Mason Gross School of the Arts in New Jersey.
Her largely French programme opened with Bach’s flamboyant Prelude and Fugue in G (BWV 541), a distinctly non-French piece. From the very first few notes, it was clear that Renée Anne Louprette is an outstanding Bach interpreter. Her sense of touch, rhetoric and the way she sensitively articulated the opening flourish and the repeated notes in both Prelude and Fugue showed a real (and sadly rather rare) understanding of Baroque concepts such as the hierarchy of the bar. Her choice of registration was spot-on. Continue reading →
Bruckner: Symphony No.9
Abrahamsen: 3 Pieces for orchestra
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle
Royal Festival Hall, 30 May 2018
Although he has already taken up his appointment as Music Director to the London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle’s contract with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is only just ending. In a magnificent farewell gesture, the Berlin Philharmonic escorted him home with two farewell concerts at the Royal Festival Hall. The first featured Bruckner’s Symphony No.9 in the four-movement version that Rattle has championed in recent years, using the version of the uncompleted Finale proposed by Nicola Samale, John A. Phillips, Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, and Giuseppe Mazzuca in 2012. This is not the forum for a discussion on the merits of what, for the time being, seems to be the final say on the Finale or, indeed whether the Symphony should end with the extraordinary third-movement Adagio. But it does seem clear that Bruckner intended there to be a fourth movement Finale. 440 bars survive in full score, with around 117 bars in sketch form. The completion by Samale, Phillips, Cohrs, and Mazzuca expands those 557 bars to 653, adding 96 conjectural bars based on existing material. Continue reading →
Georga Enescu: Oedipe
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski
Choir of the George Enescu Philharmonic, Romanian Radio Children’s Choir
Royal Festival Hall, 23 September 2017
A pupil of Faure and a teacher of Yehudi Menuhin, the Romanian composer and violinist George Enescu occupied a key, but usually overlooked, position in the musical world of the first half of the last century, a time of musical experimentation that he, by and large, avoided. Oedipe was his only opera and has been largely forgotten since its first performance in 1936 in Paris. It took him around 2o years to write. According to Menuhin, he kept the score by his bed so that he could jot down ideas easily.
Unusually amongst the many tellings of the Oedipus myth, Enescu covers the whole of Oedipus’s life, from birth to apparent death. Edmond Fleg’s libretto (much reduced from his original version, which would have entailed an opera spanning two evenings) draws on Oedipus Rex for Act 3 and uses part of the plot of Oedipus at Colonus for Act 4. Continue reading →
Hitchcock: The Lodger with live improvised organ accompaniment by David Briggs
Royal Festival Hall. 24 June 2017
The history of improvisation on the organ is almost as old as the history of the organ itself. From medieval times to the present day, the ability to compose at will has been an essential part of an organists skills, whether adding a simple counter melody to a plainchant to improvising a complete symphony. Although the tradition is not as strong in the UK as it is in, for example, France, recent decades have seen a UK revival in the art of composing at sight. On this occasion, it was a specific branch of improvising that was on display, that of accompanying a silent film. There are many organists, past and present, who specialise in the cinema organ genre, but this performance was given by a classical organist, David Briggs, formerly organist at three cathedrals, and now best known for his organ transcriptions of symphonies by Mahler et al, as well as for his film accompaniments. Continue reading →
Haydn: The Creation
London Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir, Sir Roger Norrington
Royal Festival Hall. 4 February 2017
This continuation of the Southbank ‘Belief and Beyond Belief’ series of concerts featured Joseph Haydn’s 1798 Creation. As with two of the pieces in the previous London Philharmonic Orchestra concert (reviewed here), it focussed on the beginning of the world, in this case as depicted in the late Bronze Age writings of the Old Testament. Haydn once said that when he thought of God he could write only cheerful music, and this is evident in his often seemingly irreverent take on God’s creation. Sir Roger Norrington has a similar twinkle in his eye, and was an ideal conductor for Haydn’s often (but perhaps not always intentionally) amusing moments.
As well as his pioneering work in the interpretation of music of earlier times, Norrington is also an enthusiastic supporter of audiences. He has a winning way, which he used on this occasion for another of his themes – applause. Continue reading →
‘Pull out all the Stops’
Robert Quinney, organ
Royal Festival Hall, 3 February 2017
Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 ; Vater unser im Himmelreich, BWV 682 ; Four Duets BWV 802-805; Prelude and Fugue in C, BWV 547 Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BWV 548 ; Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her, BWV 769; Prelude and Fugue in G, BWV 541
In years long past, the Royal Festival used to run a weekly ‘Wednesday at 5.55’ organ recital series, attracting performers from around the world and introducing many in the rather closeted world of English organists to music and interpretations from many different countries. Despite the enormous amount of money spent of the refurbishment of the organ (and the hall), that remarkable series has now been reduced to just four organ recitals a year, albeit full evening, rather than post-work, events. The Festival Hall organ was built in 1954 in a deliberately eclectic style, reflecting the historic organs from many different cultures, most notably the German baroque tradition that had hitherto been little understood in the UK. Along with the hall itself, it was designed to be acoustically precise. Recent alterations to both hall and organ and added slightly more of an acoustic bloom to the sound, and allowed some of the previously almost inaudible low notes to be heard.
The organ restoration project was promoted as ‘Pull out all the stops’, something that organists need little encouragement to do. Robert Quinney’s thunderous opening of THE Toccata and Fugue in D minor did just that, albeit just by pressing a button, rather than actually pulling out any stops. Continue reading →
Belief and beyond Belief: Rebel, Milhaud, Adams
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski
Royal Festival Hall, 28 January 2017
Jean-Féry Rebel: Simphonie nouvelle – Les élémens
Darius Milhaud: La Création du monde John Adams:Harmonielehre
During 2017, the Southbank Centre and the London Philharmonic Orchestra are presenting the ‘Belief and Beyond Belief’ festival, “exploring what it means to be human” through “the music, art, culture, science, philosophy, ritual and traditions that have risen out of religion in its many guises”. The link between those aspirations and the music heard in this concert was perhaps a little vague, but nonetheless this was an adventurous bit of programming from the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski, drawing together three completely different musical worlds (French baroque, 1920s jazz-era Paris and 1980s America) involving, in effect, three different orchestras. If there was a theme, it was perhaps the way that three very different composers tried to draw inspiration from apparent chaos. Rebel starts by depicting the chaos of the beginning of the world, as understood by 18th century cosmology; Milhaud combined creation myths with the seemingly chaotic world of 1920s Paris jazz; while Adams moved himself out of a creative block created by the chaotic post-Schoenberg clash between musical minimalism and complexity. Continue reading →
Weber: Der Freischütz
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, London Philharmonic Choir, Sir Mark Elder
Royal Festival Hall. 7 June 2016
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment have been celebrating their 30th anniversary year with a remarkably wide range of music, culminating with this Birthday Concert performance of Weber’s Der Freischütz. Perhaps most noted for their exploration of Baroque and Classical music, it can be forgotten that the OAE have also performed many pieces from the Romantic era, with remarkable success – indeed, their second concert, 30 years ago, under Roger Norrington, was devoted entirely to Weber. And so it was with this powerful semi-dramatised performance.
‘Not all orchestras are the same’ is one of the OAE’s mottos, and they do seem to relish pushing boundaries. That was also the case with Weber and Der Freischütz, one of the opening salvos of the German Romantic movement. Set in a forest Continue reading →
1880: Brahms, Rott & Bruckner
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Sir Simon Rattle
Royal Festival Hall. 22 April 2016
Brahms: Tragic Overture; Hans Rott: Scherzo (Symphony in E); Bruckner: Symphony No.6.
Having helped to sort out the early music world over the past 30 years, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is now turning its hand to the high Romantics. Hot on the heels of their 14 April RFH performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony (reviewed here), they now turn their hands to Bruckner and his rarely performed 6th Symphony, with Sir Simon Rattle. Their programme was built around the year 1880, and compared the music of three works composed in that year by three very different composers, one almost completely unknown.
The evening started, slightly unfortunately, with the Tragic Overture of Brahms, the bête noire of Bruckner and Hans Rott (pictured), and several others of a progressive ilk, such as Mahler. Unfortunate, because of the effect that Brahms’ withering comments on Hans Rott’s First Symphony had on the young composer. The unfortunate Rott (1858-84) was a student contemporary of Mahler and Hugo Wolf at the Vienna Conservatory, and studied organ with Bruckner, who saw him as his ‘favourite pupil’. Although Rott hadn’t impressed a conservatory competition panel with a piano reduction of the first movement, he went on to expand it into a four movement symphony. For reasons unknown, and certainly ill-advised, the then 22 year-old Rott showed the score to Brahms, an enemy of anything musically progressive, and of Bruckner and the Vienna conservatory. Brahms advised the already vulnerable young man to ‘give up composing’, leading to a possibly hallucinatory incident that resulted in him being committed Continue reading →
Czech Philharmonic & Choir of Brno, Jirí Bélohlávek
Royal Festival Hall. 16 April 2016
As part of their International Orchestra Series, the Royal Festival Hall welcomed the Czech Philharmonic and their conductor Jirí Bélohlávek for a concert performance of Leoš Janáček’s opera Jenůfa, first performed in Brno 1904. It is known in Czech as Její pastorkyňa, “Her Stepdaughter”, the name of the book upon which it is based. It is the stepmother, Kostelnička Buryjovka who is the focus of the story, although the tragic figure of the story is the hapless Jenůfa. Kostelnička has a frequently manipulative hold on the complex system of family, friends and villagers that the opera explores, not least on her stepdaughter, Jenůfa, who is in love with, and secretly pregnant by, her cousin Števa Buryja, the frequently drunken saw-mill owner. Števa’s half-brother, Laca has loved Jenůfa since childhood and is insanely jealous of his half-brother who appears to have everything he lacks, including the girls. When his clumsy attempt at a kiss is repelled, he slashes Jenůfa’s face witha blunt knife, disfiguring her. Continue reading →
Menuhin International Violin Competition 2016
Senior Final and Closing Gala Concert
Royal Festival Hall. 16 & 17 April 2016
It was fitting that for this, the 100th anniversary year of Yehudi Menuhin’s birth, the competition that he founded in 1983 returned to the UK. It started life, rather curiously, in Folkestone and has since had a peripatetic existence, moving around countries and continents every two years. Menuhin was not particularly keen on competitions, and wanted the one he founded to be more of a festival. This was amply demonstrated in the extraordinarily wide range of activities for competitors and listeners during the 11 days of the 2016 competition. Hosted largely by the Royal Academy of Music, the festival was presented in partnership with the Philharmonia Orchestra, Southbank Centre, and the Yehudi Menuhin School.
Some 300 young violinists from around 40 countries applied for selection for the competition, and 22 were chosen for each of the Junior and Senior groups. The age range is very young, up to 16 for the Junior section, and up Continue reading →
Mahler: Resurrection Symphony
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Philharmonia Chorus, Vladimir Jurowski
Royal Festival Hall. 12 April 2016
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is a remarkable institution. They are equally at home as a tiny Baroque trio sonata format, a string quartet in a crowded pub or, as they were on this occasion, with nearly 120 players fronting a choir of more than 130 singers in one of the major works of the late Romantic repertoire. They bring an extraordinary wealth of knowledge and expertise of period instruments and performing styles, and nurture, support and influence the conductors that they invite to direct their concerts. With Sir Simon Rattle soon to lead them in Bruckner, this was Vladimir Jurowski’s chance to put them through their paces with Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, the so-called ‘Resurrection’.
This often performed giant of the repertoire is very rarely, if ever, heard with the instrumental sound of Mahler’s time. And although that is only just over 100 years ago, the sound difference to the modern orchestra is almost as great as that between Mahler’s time and Mozart’s, 100 years before. The most Continue reading →
Compulsive Lyres and Fowl Play
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Sir Roger Norrington
Royal Festival Hall. 14 February 2016
Haydn: Symphony No.83 (La Poule); Mozart: Concerto in C for flute & harp, K.299; Joseph de Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George: Overture, L’amant anonyme; Beethoven: Symphony No.2.
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Department for Thinking up Silly Concert Titles had a field day with this one, coming up with ‘Compulsive Lyres and Fowl Play’. Under the benevolent direction of Sir Roger Norrington, the OAE’s programme was centred on the fascinating character Joseph de Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George (b1745), the son of a wealthy French plantation owner in Guadeloupe, and his African slave. Educated back in France from the age of 7, he first became known as a fencer, graduating from the Academy of fencing and horsemanship aged 21 and somehow collecting the title of chevalier (knight) on the way. Quite how he achieved his skills in music is not known, but the composers Lolli and Gossec had already dedicated works to him before he was 21. He quickly became one of the leading Parisian violinists and orchestra leaders. He briefly lived in the same house as Mozart (the mansion of his mentor, the Duke of Orléans in Paris), and was leader of the enormous Masonic Loge Olympique orchestra, for which Haydn wrote his Paris Symphonies.
It was one of those Paris Symphonies that opened the programme, No 83 in G minor, the so-called La Poule, nicknamed after the hen-like clucking Continue reading →
Pull out all the stops
James McVinnie (organ) & Bedroom Community
Royal Festival Hall, 24 September 2015
The 2014 restoration of the influential and controversial Royal Festival Hall’s 1954 organ has seen a resurgence of organ recitals, although these are not (yet?) up to the frequency of the long-running Wednesday at 5.55 series that introduced the London public to continental organists and organ music. The title of the organ restoration project, and of the subsequent recital series, is ‘Pull out all the stops’, a reference an episode in the organ’s history. It refers to a 1971 performance of Ligeti’s extraordinary organ work Volumina given by Xavier Darasse. The opening of Volumina requires the organist to pull out every single stop on the organ (something rarely, if ever, done), depress as many manual and pedal keys as he can by flattening his arms on the keys, and only then to switch the organ on. After a couple of seconds of an enormous crescendo as the bellows began to activate the pipes, all the fuses on the organ blew, prematurely ending the piece, and the recital. Continue reading →