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Dame Ushers in new era for famous organ

SANDY SCOTT

CLASSICAL: Organ Recital with Dame Gillian Weir *****

Usher Hall

ONCE upon a time, a light-hearted debate aimed at establishing whether or not the organ is the musical "King of Beasts" took place. Although the outcome is long forgotten, on that occasion some organists did indeed refer to the Usher Hall instrument as a "big beast".

Purists frowned upon its in-built cinema or theatre organ gadgetry, but there were popular musical tastes to be catered for during the Second World War, and it was almost certainly around then that neglect began to set in. Despite a reported clean-up during the late 1940s, the gradual process of deterioration continued to the level of unreliability.

Following a concert in the spring of 1975 - when George McPhee, organist of Paisley Abbey, played it in a performance of Elgar's The Kingdom - the Usher Hall organ fell in disuse and could only be heard, from time to time, at school concerts.

Organists took sides about its future. Some thought it should be restored to its original condition. Others, notably the late Herrick Bunney - organist of St Giles' Cathedral - favoured a completely new instrument. What we now have is the former alternative.

In her inaugural recital, Dame Gillian Weir promised to demonstrate the restored organ's versatility in a wide-ranging programme planned to show what "it is capable of doing". Scintillatingly, as one contrasting work followed another, she did what she had set out to do.

She opened with the world premiere of a specially-composed piece by Howard Blake - best known as composer of The Snowman. Entitled Rise of the House of Usher, it started off with a quiet, mysterious theme low down on the pedals and grew through contrasting episodes towards a resounding final climax.

The introductory bars of Variations on America by Charles Ives threw out snippets of the British national anthem before the tune was played with a straightforward harmonisation.

What followed was, at the same time, irreverent and very funny with some turns of phrase raising a laugh or two. All in all, it was a staggeringly brilliant performance.

From there we moved on to Bach and discovered in the 1st Trio Sonata that the restored organ can produce an authentic baroque sound. Then, in Liszt's St Francois de Paule Marchant sur les Flots, Dame Gillian convincingly showed that it can be equally at home with an arrangement of a virtuoso piano piece from the romantic era.

Marcel Dupre's variations and fugue on the traditional French carol Noel Nouvelet provided a breath-taking conclusion to the first part of the programme.

Character pieces by French composers, Mulet's Rosace and Vierne's Naiades, left fleeting impressions of lightness, transparency and - in the latter - deft speed of execution. They contrasted vividly with Messiaen's characteristically pungent chord clusters in Joie et Clarte des Corps Glorieux.

Petr Eben's very different Moto Ostinato and Bovet's much less serious Hamburger Totentanz ended the official programme. As "an after-dinner chocolate", Dame Gillian appended the exacting Elves by Bonnet as an encore.

There were organists galore in evidence, and they smiled approvingly as Dame Gillian showed that the restoration has resulted in an instrument of distinctive character that produces a full enough sound without altogether overwhelming the listener. Now that it's up and running again, one can only hope it will be better cared for.

This article appeared in the Monday June 9, 2003 The Scotsman