King of Instruments - The Art of Gillian Weir
Back by Popular Demand!
Performed with “authority and stylish aplomb” (Jed Distler, classsicstoday.com) this set of historic organ performances has once again be made available (May 2005) as part of the Eloquence series of the Decca label, and is sold as individual CDs rather than only as a boxed set of five as was the case in the 1998 Argo release. The 2005 release has updated CD booklet covers and disc graphics, but the disc contents are digitally identical to the 1998 CDs.
This is a five CD collection of music Gillian Weir recorded in the 1970's and release originally on LPs, which were re-released in CD format in 1998 after her being awarded Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. The music covers a broad range of styles, countries, and time periods. Dame Gillian's insightful and fun recollections of the making of the recordings are included in the program notes.
Catalog numbers for volumes 1 through five are 460 1862, 460 1872, 460 1882, 460 1892, and 460 1902 respectively.
The contribution made to the world of the organ by Dame Gillian Weir is almost incalculable. Our instrument has hardly had such a skilled ambassador in modern times - not just as a remarkable performer, but also through her radio and television appearances, and her many recordings. It is therefore interesting to reflect on these recordings, made mostly around thirty years ago, and containing predominantly baroque music. Gillian Weir notes in volume 1 that the recordings will be seen in context. This is of course true, but even if many attitudes towards performance of some of this music have changed, it is fascinating to consider the impact they must have had.
Weir’s teaching and performing of much of the music here shaped, in a sense, the attitude of a whole generation of British organists toward early repertoire. Its not hard to see why in those days, when Britain was still under the heady spell of the first wave of reformists, (both players and organ builders) why her playing of pre-1750 literature, much of it then little known compared to the situation today, was so inspirational. Her Bruhns for instance on Volume 2 is remarkable for its sheer sense of drama, even if elements such as organ choice, tempo relationships, rhetoric and registration are now considered within different parameters. It should be remembered that Gillian Weir was an ambassador in Britain for reformist thinking abroad; perhaps her most inspirational mentor was the redoubtable Anton Heiller.
One area where changing tastes have in no way diminished Weir’s recorded achievements is in the area of French Classical music. "French Classical music is my passion" she writes in Volume 4. Her atmospheric, dramatic and intense readings have stood the test of time remarkably well. Perhaps my favourite example is her recording of the Fugues and Caprices of Roberday on Volume 3. What an astonishing body of work this is, all but unknown to me I am ashamed to say, and the composer’s only surviving opus, published in 1660. Weir plays here on the marvellous sounding 1718 Andreas Silbermann organ in the Leonhardkirche in Basel. Her admission that "I spent an evening playing through a pile of little-known music I had brought alone ..... and decided to record it then and there" is scarcely believable, these are among the most profound recordings of the whole series. Her Clérambault on Volume 2 is perhaps a close second – Weir plays the same organ.
Another area where Gillian Weir has surpassed her British colleagues is in the championing of unpopular 20th century literature. She famously won the St Albans competition in 1964 playing Messiaen at a time when Messiaen was, in the UK at least not mainstream organ repertoire. Perhaps the most important recording here then is her performance of the Maltese composer, Charles Camilleri’s Missa Mundi, (Volume 5). What a terrifying work this is, with extended fortissimo atonal repeated chordal passages, Messiaenic monophony contrasting with the stillness of the concluding ‘Prayer’. This work was composed in 1972 and, it must be said, has never really caught on. In fact I know of just one other recording, perhaps inevitably by the completist’s completist, Kevin Bowyer. Did Dame Gillian in a sense back the wrong horse? I think actually, whatever one’s feeling about the piece, and it is an acquired taste, that the demands made on the player are simply too extreme for all but a handful of organists to take on. Weir’s incredibly virtuosic playing here, in the ultra-dry Royal Festival Hall reminds us that she came to Britain from her native New Zealand in the first instance to study piano. It is fitting therefore that this has been re-issued. In terms of mainstream repertoire, certain performances, mostly of French music remain, more or less, cutting edge. The dazzling Dubois, Vierne, Mulet and especially Dupré have scarcely, if ever been beaten. Perhaps this is the literature for which Gillian Weir will be most remembered by players and listeners of future generations. I can’t help feeling though, as a result of my hypothesis, that the present recordings therefore, with their focus on pre-1750 literature, don’t necessarily represent the very best of Weir’s recorded oeuvre. Her complete Messiaen cycle for instance has, for my money, never been bettered, even by the spectacular Latry/Notre Dame combination on DG. I am also a huge admirer of her Franck recordings; she captures an other-worldliness in his music which few others manage, but never falls into the category who would seek, in the footsteps of Tournemire, to re-incarnate a fantastical Père Angélique through sentimental, slow and often boring interpretations.
Some gripes must be aired. Firstly, what a shame that Gillian Weir herself didn’t contribute more of the liner notes, she is so eloquent! Mr RJ Stove writes adequate notes but these contain such inaccuracies as "pedals were not nearly so common [in the mid 18th century] in France as in….England or Italy". Ouch. Secondly, there is nothing at all about the organs. A photo of the astonishing Thionville case at least should have been included together with some histories and stop-lists. Thirdly the weird composition of the discs that has two of them consisting of 95% baroque music with one track of 20th century French repertoire used as a filler.
I would recommend especially Volume 2 for the Clérambault, 3 for the Roberday, and 5 for the Camilleri and the deliciously played French miniatures from Hexham.