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Dame Gillian Weir puts Cirencester’s new organ through its paces

Peeters, Liszt, CPE Bach, Dupré, Franck, Buxtehude, Ives, Bovet, Mushel : Dame Gillian Weir, Church of St John the Baptist, Cirencester, 18.6.2011 (RJ)

During my recent trip to the former German Democratic Republic there was one aspect that impressed me greatly. All the historic churches I visited were not only in immaculate condition, but had been equipped with large, spanking new organs. My chief regret is that my time was so limited that I did not have the opportunity to hear them in action.

How different things are in Britain where some parochial church councils seem to regard their organs as expendable rather than as sources of pride. I am constantly hearing of plans to dismantle pipe organs in churches on the grounds of cost and resorting to cheaper and less satisfactory alternatives. I therefore pay credit to Cirencester Parish Church for rebuilding (and extending) their venerable Willis organ. It now occupies double the floor space it once did and projects its sound directly into the nave.

Organ recitals do not appeal to everyone, partly because audiences like to see the musicians performing at live recitals This is impossible in the case of organ concerts if the organ manual is hidden away from view. Fortunately Cirencester had overcome this problem by installing CCTV for its first Organ Festival which projects an image of the performer in action onto a screen.

The musician engaged to launch the Festival was that doyenne of organists, Dame Gillian Weir who introduced us to several little known gems from the organ repertoire. How many people have heard of the Belgian composer Flor Peeters, for instance, whose Concert Piece opens with a vigorous pedal solo demanding exceptional skills from the performer? Based on themes from his Organ Concerto it expressed a number of moods before ending in a lively toccata.

Franz Liszt’s bicentenary was celebrated with two pieces. St Francis of Paola Walking on the Waves was originally a piano work, but Lionel Rogg’s arrangement expressed a sense of calm and dignified holiness which builds up to a triumphant climax. We were on more familiar ground with Liszt’s magnificent Prelude and Fugue on BACH which gave Dame Gillian ample opportunity to demonstrate the magnificent sound the restored organ is capable of.

In the midst of so much music from the Romantic period it was refreshing to hear works from an earlier age. C P E Bach’s Sonata in A minor filled the bill perfectly with its artlessness and charm and so did Buxtehude’s Ciacona in E minor which was not as stolidly North European as I expected it to but lightened by Italian elegance and wit. Marcel Dupré’s Cortege et Litanie was particularly atmospheric with hushed string timbres of the organ evoking the architectural grandeur of a great church and later the glorious sound of a choir processing up the aisle.

But not all organ music is solemn as Charles Ives’ irreverent and satirical Variations on ‘America’ (which some might have recognised as God save the Queen) proved This youthful work was full of high jinks and pokes fun at the musical life of a small New England town. And if you felt the programme had been insufficiently cosmopolitan, Dame Gillian rounded off the evening with Salamanca by the Swiss organist Guy Bovet full of some infectious flamenco rhythms, and a lively Toccata from a suite of Uzbek folk melodies by Georgi Muschel.

I left the recital full of admiration for Dame Gillian’s stamina, co-ordination and musicianship – as well as for the magnificent sound she produced on the organ restored by Harrison and Harrison. The organ repertoire is clearly vast and deserves further investigation – and the rest of the Cirencester Organ Festival (when ends on June 25th) is sure to reveal further delights.

Roger Jones

Seen and Heard International, June 20, 2011