Sunday, 17 July 2011

BBC Proms 2011 Opening Weekend, The View from the Gallery (3)

Prom No.3, or An Interlude with a real King of Instruments

This was my first experience of the restored Royal Albert Hall organ live and it is definitely my kind of organ. The loud bass notes make the building shake, the light stuff sounds out clearly, and there are some fabulously silly stops that make you wonder if you're listening to a classical organ recital or about to applaud the arrival of the Circus Ringmaster. Indeed I almost think that if Terry Pratchett had a model for the organ at Unseen University this might have been it.

To put this beast through its paces, Stephen Farr, making his Proms debut, made a well chosen selection of contrasting pieces. He began with three short works – for a dramatic opening, Alain's Litanies, followed by two more somber pieces, Liszt's Prelude 'Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen and Bach's Chorale Prelude 'Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott', BWV 721. After the excitement of the Alain, the other two floated in Liszt's case eerily, in Bach's case soothingly around the sparsely filled Gallery. The sound of that organ, whatever is being played, fills the space, envelopes the listener. It's wonderful stuff.

The highpoint of the recital though, was the final work, the world premiere of Judith Bingham's The Everlasting Crown. This seven movement piece achieved the first goal of any piece one hears for the first time, I would certainly go to hear it played live again and, more to the point, it made me interested to seek out more of Judith Bingham's music. The programme of the work is a sequence of famous crown jewels each associated with a particular quality. Together they put the organ through its paces from the grand, to the etherial to the weird wurlitzer type moments. My personal favourite was the sixth movement 'King Edward's Sapphire' representing piety which in an uncanny way recalled to my mind parts of Vaughan Williams's Lark Ascending. It was a kind of version of English pastoral but reimagined and for organ. Very very beautiful.

I think there have been regular organ recitals at the Proms since the instrument was restored. I shall certainly keep an eye out for them in future, and for other performances by Stephen Farr. If you missed the live concert or the broadcast this is well worth taking an hour out of your day to catch up with.

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