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King of Instruments - BBC

The legendary six-part television programme King of Instruments is now available on DVD! Gillian Weir takes you on a tour across Europe on six different organs, providing engaging dialogue about the history of the times, music and instruments. See and hear over 20 works by a wide range of composers performed on these beautiful instruments, as filmed and recorded by the BBC team in the late 1980s.

Available from Priory Records(external link) PRDVD 7001.

The six programmes highlight organs in these locations:

  • St. Bavo, Haarlem, The Netherlands
  • Abbey Church, Ottobeuren, Germany
  • St. Knud's, Odense, Denmark
  • Ulster Hall, Belfast, Northern Ireland
  • Hedvig Eleonora Kyrka, Stockholm, Sweden
  • St. Ouen, Rouen, France

The following introduction to the DVD release is from Hefin Owen, the BBC Producer for the original series:

I am delighted the King of Instruments is being released on DVD. Of all the television programmes I have been involved with, this is the series that keeps on being cropping up in discussions and always brings back some very fond memories.

It was a co-production between a number of different broadcasters – Sveriges Televisi, Danmarks Radio and BBC Wales, all pulled together by the late J Mervyn Williams. He is credited with many landmark productions including the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, but he always spoke very fondly of the Organ Series and used it many times as an example of what was possible when interested parties came together.

Although many of the television production techniques used in making the series are commonplace today, they were very new and groundbreaking at the time. For most of the series we used a single video camera onto a separate one inch tape recorder. Video was just beginning to be used instead of film for news gathering, and cameras with recorders on board were still in the development stage. The sound was recorded separately onto one of the emerging digital formats. The same sound engineer – Geoff Atkins – mixed the complete series, in a small B-type BBC sound mobile that made its way around Europe. We recorded when we could – including 5 am on a Sunday morning in Rouen. The Cavaillé-Coll organ was so loud that there was a ban on playing it after 10 pm. During the day the traffic noise was too heavy, and as no one had mentioned an early morning ban as no one in their right mind would contemplate such behaviour, we decided to chance our luck.

I also remember the dreadful feeling when recording in St Knuds in Odense Denmark when eleven minutes into - of all pieces - the Liszt Prelude on BACH there was an almighty bang and my monitor went black. Immediately I thought that the camera-lady perched precariously on top of the Choir organ casework had fallen 60 feet onto the floor, only to discover thankfully that the camera had come off its dolphin arm mounting.

By the time the series was transmitted, performance programmes were beginning to be considered ‘old hat’ by the emerging BBC executives, and it was hidden away with a 5.30 pm slot on a Friday against the Australian soap Neighbours. Even so it performed remarkably well, achieving a 2 million audience and a very high audience appreciation index (AI) – second only to the wedding of Charles and Diana.

The following review is from the March 2011 edition of International Record Review:

‘The King of Instruments’ was first broadcast as a series of six television programmes by BBC Wales in January and February 1989 and later on BBC 2 in April and May of that year. Its release on license by the BBC to Priory Records in 2010 and subsequent availability on DVD is therefore an exciting development, both for those who have waited more than 20 years for the opportunity to view these remarkable performances for a second time and for those who were unable to experience them the first time around. The result does not disappoint. Indeed, I firmly believe that this is some of the most exciting organ playing I have ever heard and therefore recommend it as an essential addition to any record collection.

Gillian Weir is one of the world's most renowned virtuoso concert organists and should be considered among the great performers of our time. Her career took off after she won the St Albans International Organ Competition in 1964, subsequently becoming the youngest organist to perform at the First Night of the Proms, as well as the youngest organist to give a solo recital at the Royal Festival Hall. Since then she has become particularly well known for her interpretation of Messiaen's organ works, which she championed early on, as well as her widely acclaimed performances of the complete organ works of J. S. Bach. Weir is also noted for her appeal as a performer and this is plentifully evident throughout this recording as she conveys and enviable sense of poise and elegance combined with a remarkable flamboyancy, reflected in the way she manoeuvres effortlessly around the console and even in her exuberant choice of clothing (firmly locating the recording in the 1980s!).

Every one of the six episodes is filmed at a magnificent organ, each in a different European venue, including the famous Cavaillé-Coll instrument at St Ouen in Rouen, and the Christian Müller organ at St Bavo Church in Haarlem. Needless to say, the music chosen for each programme suits to perfection the instrument on which it is performed and shows each to its best possible advantage. The pieces played across the six programmes cover a vast range of different musical styles, from Haydn's ‘Piece for a Flute Organ’ in C major to a transcription of Wagner's ubiquitous ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, extracts from François Couperin's Messe pour les Convents to Frank's great Choral No. 3 in A minor, demonstrating the sheer variety that it is possible to achieve on the organ.

Weir's scope is equally, if not more impressive. The first programme, performed at St Bavo Church in Haarlem, opens with a performance of J. S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor which is almost terrifying in the drama of its delivery. This is contrasted immediately with Sweelinck's Variations on ‘Mein junges Leben hat ein End’, the most popular of Sweelinck's variation settings based on a Dutch folk tune about the end of youth. She absolutely captures the sense of melancholy that pervades the piece, while displaying remarkable dexterity in the more virtuosic passages. The programme concludes with Bach's Fugue in E flat major from the collection Clavierübung III. The famous melody, now commonly known as ‘St Anne’, is weaved through the polyphonic texture at the opening and is handled with a grand sense of spaciousness, before exploding partway through with marvellous excitement that endures for the remainder of the piece.

Weir has a well-deserved reputation for her personal appeal and power of communication and this is apparent when one considers the choice of music for this opening programme. The organ repertoire is by no means overly familiar to the general public and yet she renders it accessible to her audience without in any way compromising on quality or condescending to viewer. In addition, she draws us in on the experience by turning to the camera after each piece in order to deliver well-crafted and informative introductions to the next performance.

With over 150 minutes’ worth of film, it would be ridiculous to attempt to discuss the entire programme here. Highlights for me were the exquisite performance of ‘Naïades’ by Loius Vierne and the surging exposition of Henri Mulet’s ‘Tu es Petra’, both performed on the Grönlung organ in Hedvig Eleonora Kyrka in Stockholm. The ‘Echo’ Fantaisie in E flat by Saint-Saëns is delivered with energy and Ives’s Variations on 'America' is played with the great sense of gusto that the pieces warrants. In truth, each track is a gem, but perhaps the jewel in the crown is the aforementioned Franck masterpiece, played in the wonderful Gothic church of St Ouen in Rouen which concludes the DVD. Weir's sensitive mastery of the beautiful musical lines that make up this work, as well as the awesome command of the tempos, not least the dramatic accelerando towards the conclusion of the piece, creates an unforgettably powerful effect.

Both the audio and the visual quality are very good. It is remarkable to consider, as outlined by the producer Hefin Owen in her newly written introduction to the disc, that it was filmed using ‘a single video camera onto a separate one-inch tape recorder’. The DVD is accompanied by a bonus CD, recorded at the same time as the television programmes, though not reproduced from them, and includes one piece recorded at each of the featured venues. The original brief accompanying notes with this CD are reproduced in the booklet.
David Newsholme

Click here for a Dutch language review!

MusicComposerVenue
1 Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 J.S. Bach St Bavo
2 Variations on Mein junges Leben hat ein End Jan Sweelinck
3 Fugue in E-flat major, BWV 552b J.S.Bach
4 Noël in D minor Louis-Claude Daquin Ottobeuren
5 Sonata for two organs (with Huw Tregelles Williams) Giovanni Lucchinetti
6 Toccata Duodecima Georg Muffat
7 Piece in C major for a Clock Organ Joseph Haydn
8 Sonata No. 4 in D major (First Movement) Franz Xavier Schnitzer
9 Extracts from Messe pour les Couvents François Couperin
10 Prelude, Fugue and Chaconne in C major Dietrich Buxtehude St Knud's
11 "Echo" Fantaisie in E flat major Camille Saint-Saëns
12 Prelude and Fugue on BACH Franz Liszt
13 Toccata in F (Symphony No.5) Charles-Marie Widor Ulster Hall
14Concerto No.4 in F major (First Movement) G.F. Handel
15 Ride of the Valkyries Richard Wagner (arr. David Patrick)
16 Variations on America Charles Ives
17 Moto ostinato from Sunday Music Petr Eben Hedvig Eleonora
18 Naïades, from Pieces de Fantaisie Louis Vierne
19 Tu es Petra, from Esquisses Byzantines Henri Mulet
20 Variations sur un Noël Marcel Dupré
21 Dieu parmi nous, from La Nativité du Seigneur Olivier Messiaen Rouen
22 Elfes from 12 Pieces pour Orgue Op.7 Joseph Bonnet
23 Choral No.3 in A minor César Franck

Bonus CD Included

The BBC issued a CD to accompany the series, which Priory is including as a bonus. This features separate recordings by Dame Gillian (not taken from the television soundtracks), of one of the pieces from each of the programmes.

TrackMusicComposer
1Toccata and Fugue in D minorJohann Sebastian Bach
2Noël in D minorLouis-Claude Daquin
3Prelude and Fugue on BACHFranz Liszt
4First Movement on Concerto No 4 in F majorGeorge Frederick Handel
5Naïades, from Pieces de Fantaisie Louis Vierne
6Choral III in A minorCésar Franck