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An interview with Dame Gillian Weir: Recording the Royal Albert Hall organ, November 2004

transcripted by Mark Smee

Mark Smee, a freelance writer and music-lover from Birmingham, talked with Dame Gillian Weir at Symphony Hall the morning after her recital of Monday 29 November 2004.

MS
I'd like to talk now about the newly-restored organ of the Royal Albert Hall, of which I believe you've just made a recording.

GW
Yes, ten days ago. It's the first recording to be made of the instrument since its restoration. I've been associated with the Royal Albert Hall since my début there, which occurred while I was still a student at the Royal College of Music. I played the Poulenc concerto for the opening night of the Proms under Sir Malcolm Sargent, which was a great thrill, taking over at the last minute from a renowned French organist who was indisposed. That year I'd won the St Albans Organ Competition and the BBC happened to have a representative on the jury, so he thought of me and phoned. “Do you play the Poulenc concerto?” “Oh yes, of course.” “How would you like to play it for the First Night of the Proms?” “Oh, that would be marvellous!” I said, my grip on the receiver tightening as I stood on the stairs of my bedsit. As soon as that call was over, I was on to my teacher, Ralph Downes: “Oh, Mr Downes, excuse me but have you got a copy of the Poulenc concerto? Oh and, er, could you tell me what it is, exactly?” I was an extremely shy, timid person and this behaviour was completely out-of-character for me. But even I, in my youthful naïvety, had enough sense to know that you didn't turn down an opportunity like that! It was a great thrill, a wonderful privilege, and since then I've played the RAH organ...well, dozens of times: many times for the Proms, including as concerto soloist for the Last Night, five years ago; for the celebration of the Hall's 100th anniversary; for RSCM special Festivals; and for the famous RCO fund-raising mock-Hoffnung concert. The most recent performance was for the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony in the Proms this year, as part of the organ's re-opening celebrations.

So I was delighted to accept the invitation to make the first recording of the restored instrument, but I really felt that, since everybody in a sense owns the Albert Hall in their hearts - it was the curator John Birch, I think, who called it “the Parish Hall of Great Britain” - I should be making this disc on behalf of everybody in the country, as well as for the Hall. So I tried to devise a programme which reflected the nature of the Hall and what it represents for British people. When you think of the Hall, you think of royalty - the Hall was named after Prince Albert, who was very musical, a composer and player himself - you think of the Proms, and national occasions such as Remembrance Sunday.

But I wanted to play serious music, too, not just a collection of nostalgic fragments. So Liszt's Fantasy and Fugue on 'Ad nos, ad Salutarem Undam' is the centrepiece, because it's a major work and it shows off perfectly the symphonic nature of the organ. For me, that piece is very Wagnerian, like a Wagner opera in its orchestration. I've also included another Liszt work to show off the sheer power of the instrument and some of its startling reeds, which are such a feature. Then I turned to English music, including the Howells C sharp minor Rhapsody - a marvellous, passionate piece which I greatly admire, written during an air raid while he was staying with Bairstow - and Parry's wonderful 'Wanderer' Fantasy. This is a most beautiful piece which I also love, very difficult to register because it's so orchestral, but perfectly suited in both style and period to the organ, showing off its warmth.

The programme is rather like the Last Night of the Proms, with the serious fare that I've just mentioned in the first half, then after the interval you can let your hair down a bit! So in the second half there's Nimrod and a shortened arrangement of the famous Pomp and Circumstance march, which are so redolent of the majesty of the events that take place in the Hall. Then - again, to show off some of the different reeds, but alone rather than mixed with other stops - I play a little piece from the 1950s by the English composer John Cook, a Fanfare, the sort of piece that could well be used at an important occasion to herald an entrance, for example. And then, to finish with a grand toccata for a concert hall, I chose the Lanquetuit Toccata, a very good piece that everybody loves.

So, to sum up, I've tried to reflect the various sides of the organ, as many of its colours as I possibly could, and to make it speak as a representative of that hall. I must also say that while making the recording, I had the strongest feeling I've ever had that an organ is part of the building containing it, and I wanted that to be reflected in the recorded sound. Priory's two chief engineers, Neil Collier and Paul Crichton, who are just wonderful, have produced the most fabulous sound: you feel as though you're seated right in the middle of the auditorium with this marvellous organ all around you. It really sounds as though you're listening to the hall, with the organ speaking at its heart.

MS
The organbuilder Lawrence Phelps, your late husband, always said that when designing an organ, the crucial thing was to subordinate all considerations to the principal one of making an organ which would faithfully perform that body of music already written for it. But where does that leave the RAH organ? I was struck by Paul Hale's rhetorical question in his tonal appreciation of the organ in the November 2004 OR “Indeed, what is the musical use of much of this Herculean instrument?” And, in lighter vein, the project consultant Ian Bell wryly noting, on the subject of the much improved Bass Drum, “we wait only for someone to devise a use for it”.

GW
I have! Twice, in my recording - I loved the Drum! I had such fun...in fact, I shocked one of my purist friends. When he heard where I'd used it, he was very taken aback. But this is what I mean about a recording for everyone to enjoy, to celebrate the Hall: it's like a party. And the Albert Hall organ is a one-off instrument, because it's in a one-off building. It's incredibly difficult to fill a space that holds 6000 people, but that's what the RAH organ is designed to do. It's unlike any other organ I know. So I didn't want to treat it like any other organ. It has an amazing array of colours, and in a way it is up to the organist to find a way of using them. But I do think the Liszt suits it perfectly, because the piece requires both an orchestral and a symphonic approach: for the organist, “orchestral” implies a wealth of colour, “symphonic” the sheer bulk or weight of sound, and the RAH has both in abundance. And I don't feel that it falls foul of my husband's first principle of organ design: faced with an auditorium the size of the Albert Hall, and the uses to which the organ would be put, I'm sure his first priority would have been to ensure that it filled the space with sound.

Of course, as with most organs, there are aspects of it that one could criticize. It doesn't have a proper case, to start with, which bothers me, and would certainly have bothered my husband, since a case is so efficient in projecting sound.

MS
Yes, I gather from Ian Bell's OR article that there was a ceiling over the entire organ before the restoration, but trials suggested that it sounded better with the ceiling removed.

GW
I can't remember well enough how the organ sounded before this was done to comment, and wouldn't dream of criticising the work of the restorers in this respect, but as a general principle a case is essential for projecting an organ's sound and for colouring each division.

MS
I've always felt about your playing that, no matter which piece it is, your passion for expressing the music and your caring about communicating it to the audience shines through. There's no egotism or virtuosity for its own sake.

GW
Well I'm delighted that you feel it. I just love the music. As a child, I was besotted with it. My first reaction was to dance - I danced around the house. It was a magical means to visit another world which I could almost see in my mind's eye. Now, as an interpreter, I feel a huge responsibility towards music, especially in the case of new or esoteric repertoire, where I want the audience to hear what I hear in it. In National Trust stately homes that are open to the public there are very knowledgeable guides who are often quite proprietorial; and frequently there's a certain room, or painting or sculpture, of which one guide is particularly fond, so they will enthuse about it as though it were their own. Well, as a player, I feel that I am such a guide, displaying the piece to the audience and saying through my playing, “Now you must have a close look at this, it's wonderful!” And if I could stand on stage afterwards and say “Well, wasn't it?” I would.

As Dame Janet Baker once said, the player feeds on the music, too. Iife isn't easy, indeed it seems to get increasingly complicated, difficult and frustrating. Walking on stage is like entering a haven of peace and sanity, where the music makes eloquent good sense and you are in harmony with it. And if you can successfully draw the audience in to the world of the music so much the better, because you've then got company for the journey It sounds trite, but it really is how I feel.

MS
Finally, Dame Gillian, to sum up, what measures should we take to promote appreciation of serious organ music in the 21st century?

GW
Well, I don't want to give the impression that being an organist means being a humourless spoil-sport, because having fun is part of musical life - hence my bass drum at the Albert Hall! But, apart from the many problems that afflict all the arts nowadays, organists have additional difficulties, particularly the quality of the instruments available to them. You cannot expect audiences to take an interest in organ music, however well it is played, if the organ used is clapped out, stuck in a corner where it's almost inaudible, ciphering or slow to speak. The quality of the instrument used for a concert is crucial, as is the quality and variety of the music. One might also give a thought to the comfort of the audience! I recently played in a church so cold I thought I would die, with the audience hunched shivering on hard pews, surely thinking “Please, please stop and get me out of here!” I mean, it's meant to be pleasurable, for Heaven's sake! Obviously we can't all have a stupendous hall like this one, but we can take steps to look after the audience. For the first recital I ever gave, in a church in New Zealand, I persuaded the very co-operative vicar to take some money out of petty cash and we bought cheap cushions for everyone to sit on. And how about a glass of wine? I love playing to an audience who've had a glass of wine in the interval, they're always so mellow!

But, to end on a more serious note, I do feel there is a general crisis within the arts in our society - a crisis of dumbing down. I hate political correctness most of all, and the effect it is having on education and culture. It's tragic that people are not learning to appreciate our wonderful artistic heritage and to grasp the opportunities for self-improvement available to all. It's also tragic to destroy the pleasure that children can gain from making an effort to learn something, the intellectual pleasure of, say, being able to recognise the work of a particular painter or composer. We don't need to be stuffy about it, we don't need to force feed them with dull lectures, but we must try to create a climate where people are expected, and want, to make an effort to learn something now in order to achieve deeper understanding and enjoyment in the future.

MS
Dame Gillian, thank you very much for giving me so much of your time this morning, and for your remarkable insights into the world of the organ.

Reproduced with permission of Organists' Review


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