Gillian Weir's Farewell Recital took place at Westminster Cathedral in December 2012, the last as a world-renowned concert organist in her remarkable career spanning 48 years with some 2000 performances in the most prestigious international venues and with many of its greatest orchestras. Performer, scholar and teacher, she has defined a new role as an ambassador for the King of Instruments and its music through her performances, television programmes, recordings and lectures, her reputation extending well beyond the world of the organ. She will continue with master-classes, adjudicating and some recording, and on November 26th will be at the harpsichord in Bach's D minor concerto, giving her services for a charity concert in aid of the Tait Memorial Trust, at Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street, London.
A feeling for the atmosphere of that Gala evening and the public's reaction can be gleaned from the following accounts, beginning with the current issue (Feb-April 2013) of The Organ magazine, which carries the following account by critic and writer John Amis:
Queen of the organ loft, Dame Gillian Weir has been numbered rightly among the very greatest living artists, a supreme performer-musician. But she has decided to call it a day while she is still at the peak of her powers. Many times she has played at Westminster Cathedral and it was there that she gave her farewell recital to a packed church on December 5.
Her choice of programme was a curious one: no major baroque masterpiece, only a splinter of Bach and no Messiaen. She played three works by recent organist composers, the granitic Passacaile by Frank Martin, an early Duruflé Scherzo; the more recent pieces were Jeanne Demessieux's Te Deum, Healey Willan's Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue and Henri Mulet's Tu es Petrus. The only French Romantic work was the Grande pièce symphonique by César Franck. Everything was played with Weir's usual complete command of the notes and what lay behind those notes, Like all true performers you feel that the notes are in her bones and yet they are played with freshness and spontaneity. She is a wonder.
Some of the audience will remember, as I did, how she seemed to appear like a Minerva, fully armed, to play the Poulenc Concerto at the Proms, still in her early twenties but already at the peak of her powers. She will now continue to give masterclasses that demonstrate her wisdom, passion and practicality. She says that she is returning (in private, alas) to her first instrument- at College she was a pupil of the pianist Cyril Smith.
This London recital came at the end of a series of performances in America and Europe, all given on prestigious organs in foremost cities.
In the Daily Telegraph on December 7th Ivan Hewett wrote :
Celebrated organist Gillian Weir showcased her wonderful gift for making music breathe in her last ever recital, held at Westminster Cathedral. There is nothing like a Dame, says the well-known song, and in the world of organ-playing that's certainly true. There's no organist in the world quite so starry, recorded and honoured as Dame Gillian Weir.
“The organ world will never be the same again”- said John Allison in the Sunday Telegraph on December 16:
Packed organ recitals are rare these days, but the crowd that thronged Westminster Cathedral was there for good reason: the farewell concert by Dame Gillian Weir, after a career spanning almost half a century as one of the world's leading organists. Her French-dominated programme may have been tailored to the special potency of Westminster Cathedral's grand organ, yet it also showcased Weir's undiminished powers as a musician.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that Weir opened with the Te Deum by Jeanne Demessieux. Though she has always resisted being labeled a “woman organist” in a male-dominated milieu, Weir seized this chance to salute the trailblazing French female organist, whose chunky treatment of plainsong and joyously jazzy riffs she handled with consummate virtuosity.
Franck's Grand Pièce Symphonique found Weir in complete control of its formal scheme, building towards the magisterial finale, which tumbled out inexorably. Much more about colour, Duruflé's Scherzo was dispatched with gossamer lightness.
Further extremes of contrast came in a programme ranging from Bach's tender Chorale Prelude on Dies sind die heil'gen zehn Gebot to Healy Willan's powerful Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue, calling as it does for the high-pressure tuba stops which projected so magnificently here. Frank Martin's almost atonal Passacaille was invested with subtle luminosity.
Henri Mulet's Tu es Petra, a snarling carillon-toccata, provided the emotional finale for both organist and audience. There were no encores by way of wavering second thoughts: Weir has played her last in public, and the organ world will never be quite the same again.
The March 2013 issue of The American Organist magazine carried the following:
DAME GILLIAN WEIR, beloved concert organist who has been in “the business” for almost half a century, performed her final public solo organ recital on December 5, 2012, at London’s Westminster Cathedral, the mother church for the Catholic community in England and Wales. This was the last concert in the Grand Organ Festival 2012, showcasing the “Grand West End Organ” built by Henry Willis & Sons between 1922 and 1932. The instrument was renovated and restored in 1984 and 1996 by Harrison & Harrison. It consists of four manuals and pedal, 78 speaking stops, 104 ranks, and 4,353 pipes. This was Dame Gillian’s 17th concert at the cathedral, including her performance of the complete organ works of Olivier Messiaen in 1998. A capacity audience had gathered to hear this magnificent artist one last time and to pay homage as well as cheer her as she departs from the concert stage. Rarely does a cathedral organ recital attract a standing-room-only audience these days; but this was a unique occasion in addition to being a beautifully designed and appealing program. And, as always, Dame Gillian did not disappoint! It must have been overwhelmingly gratifying to play to such an august assemblage of professionals, colleagues, amateurs, critics, aficionados, and just plain organ lovers. Although she pointed out in remarks at the reception in the rectory afterward that she couldn’t have done it without us, it was clear to all who had the thrill of hearing this impressive performer that her playing is unique and sets a standard for bravura, sweeping and soaring phrases, with blazing virtuosity, that is second to none.
The program featured works well suited to Dame Gillian’s temperament and technique that have become the hallmark of her skills as an emotional and passionate communicator. In a day and age when often performances sound slightly generic, Dame Gillian’s extraordinary personality and ability to communicate consistently throughout a lifetime of performing was very much on display once again. How impressive it was not only to hear this music played competently but to hear it through the filter of a mature, vibrant, and engaging artist. It harkens back to the great performers of a bygone era. The memories of other unforgettable artists kept creeping in to our consciousness as we listened. Her French-inspired program began with Demessieux’s Te Deum, Op. 11, Bach’s Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot, BWV 678, and Franck’s Grand Pièce symphonique, Op. 17. After intermission, the program continued with Frank Martin’s Passacaille, Healy Willan’s Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue, Duruflé’s Scherzo, Op. 2, and the Mulet Tu es petra. Tu es petra was featured on Dame Gillian’s first concert at Westminster Cathedral in 1964, so it was poignantly fitting to conclude this concert with the same work.
The tour-de-force repertoire and performance elicited a spontaneous standing, cheering ovation as Dame Gillian made the long trek from the organ loft, down the long central aisle to the crossing and pulpit, where she graciously bowed many times to her adoring fans. For those of us lucky enough to attend the reception, it afforded a moment to rub elbows with friends from throughout the world. There were many touching tributes and accolades, and it was amusing to observe how shy and reluctant Dame Gillian was in accepting them. When asked if this were a daunting occasion, she did admit that it occurred to her that this would be the last time to “try to get it right.” To all of our collective ears, there was no question that she succeeded. As she moves into the next phase of her life, we hope that she remembers this grand occasion as a crown on a star-studded career. May she find much contentment knowing the pleasure she brought to us that evening in Westminster Cathedral as well as in many other venues throughout her 48-year career. Hip hip hooray to Dame Gillian!
Stephen Hamilton and Kenneth Huber
Copyright 2013, by the American Guild of Organists. Reproduced by permission of The American Organist Magazine(external link).
The November/December 2012 issue of Choir and Organ contained a detailed cover story on Gillian Weir's unique career. In the following issue (January/February 2013) the Editor wrote:
The rapturous and prolonged standing ovation that greeted Dame Gillian Weir at the close of her final public recital in Westminster Cathedral on 5 December spoke volumes. It carried all the warmth and sincerity of an audience that not only admired her brilliant and vigorous performance of Demessieux, Bach, Franck, Martin, Healey Willan, Duruflé and Mulet – though that in itself would have merited it – but who also appreciated the qualities of a woman who, through force of personality, had broken stereotype to give so much to the world over decades of shining playing and dedicated teaching. Final public recital it may have been, but it was not the end: Dame Gillian has left a formidable legacy of memories and CDs of her playing, and the influence she has had on her pupils.
And from the Berkshire Organists' Association, Tim Chapman writes in “Patron Dame Gillian Weir's Final Public Concert”:
The 5th of December 2012 saw the final public performance at Westminster Cathedral by one of the finest organists in the world. A light has gone out and never again will seen at organrecitals.com, amongst a full schedule of events yet to be enjoyed, that jewel in the crown - a concert by Gillian Weir.
For me, Dame Gillian Weir is to the organ what Dame Janet Baker is to the voice. Each in her field is as good as it gets. Both are consummate musicians who had the integrity to bow out at the very height of her powers. And, as with Dame Janet, we have in Dame Gillian an artist who was always at the pinnacle, consistently outstanding - so much so that I could have easily have prepared this review before the concert, peppered it with superlatives, and been able, reliably and accurately, subsequently to submit it for publication in this journal without even having to run the inconvenience of a trip into town, actually to witness the performance. But I didn't do that. I was there (Who would want to have missed it?) and in the event, nothing I could have written in advance would have been adequate, unless I had had the foresight simply to write, "Absolutely wonderful!".
There are 78 speaking stops on the Westminster Cathedral organ and I'll bet they were all pulled out that night. Of course, anyone can do that, but we're talking about GW, so forget the stops, the manuals, the couplers, the entire exciting specification of this gorgeous Henry Willis III instrument and even the blinding technique of the player and her masterly control of registration, which perhaps we as enthusiasts can appreciate more than most, and this modest woman's true genius emerges - when she plays, it's not about the organ of the organist, it's about the music.
The music on this occasion was a marvelously-chosen retrospective; a collection of pieces that Dame Gillian has played before in her career - no premières or cutting-edge commissions for this triumphant farewell. Demessieux's Te Deum, op. 11, J S Bach's Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot, BWV 678 and Franck's Grand Pièce Symphonique, op. 17 in the first half, followed by Martin's Passacaille and Fugue, Duruflé's Scherzo, op. 2, and to end (there was no encore), Tu es Petra from Equisses Byzantines by Henri Mulet. All of these works are so entirely appropriate to the vast acoustic of Westminster Cathedral. But despite the cavernous reverberation, such was the articulation of the performer, and her intimate knowledge of the organ and its setting, there was no muddle. Every note sounded with splendid clarity and an audience that filled this venue to capacity, which included not a few heavy-weights from the organ world, was treated to a delicious spectacle of virtuosity, craftsmanship and musicality.
From the very first note of her performance at St Alban's whilst still a student at the Royal College of Music that led her to first prize in the competition in 1964, through a glittering (Literally - didn't we just love all those sparkly outfits?) global career, to the very last note of the Mulet, we have been privileged to have had amongst us a giant who has given of herself for our pleasure. We cannot thank her enough for her gift of music to us. All we can do is stand and applaud which is exactly what I and 2000 other people did for ten minutes as Dame Gillian Weir walked the entire length of the Cathedral to take her final bow. London was bitterly cold and gloomy that night, but who cared about that when we were all warmed and illuminated by the presence of a star?
James O'Donnell, President of the Royal College of Organists, wrote in the RCO News President's Column:
It seems incredible that, as I write, one of the most prominent and highly-regarded figures in the organ world, and I dare say in the history of the instrument- our distinguished Vice President, Dame Gillian Weir- is about to give her last few public performances. She has been such a constant presence in the musical world for nearly 50 years that we have, inevitably, taken her rather for granted. She intends to continue recording and teaching, but her decision to draw her concert career to a close sure present an opportunity to consider her achievements, and the unique contribution of gifts and ideas that have shaped her work.
Alas I do not have space to do more than mention a few of these. Above all, Dame Gillian has been an outstanding performer on the international stage, championing the role of the organist as superlative musician, not just in the rather small world of church and organ music, but in the wider musical context. In her many BBC PRom appearances, and in festivals, around the world, she has helped raise awareness if the organ and its culture. Her many recording and broadcasts, on television and radio, have reached enormous audiences. She is a dedicated and influential teacher who has inspired so many outstanding players. Her repertoire is extensive and, crucially, discerning. From the first she has particularly championed the organ music of Olivier Messiaen and played a huge part in establishing it true significance in his output.
In achieving all this, and more, Dame Gillian has conspicuously drawn both on her wider musical knowledge and her other artistic and cultural interests, including dance, literature and philosophy. Although her playing speaks for itself, she has also spoken and written with eloquence and insight. She is an outstanding ambassador for the organa and its music. She has transformed the standing of the organ and organist in the musical landscape. She is a visionary musician for or time. Organists, in particular, owe her a great deal, and we wish her every happiness and fulfillment as she embarks on the next stage of her astonishing career.
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