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The Grand Organ of The Royal Albert Hall

The Grand Organ of The Royal Albert HallGillian Weir has made the first recording on the newly refurbished organ at Royal Albert Hall. After two years of silence, a £1.7 million restoration project was completed bringing new life to this monumental instrument.

Royal Albert Hall, which opened in 1871, had the organ as an integral part of the hall from the start. Henry Willis was the original builder; further expansion and upgrade work was done in the 1920's and 30's. Finally, work was started in 2002 and completed in 2004 for the current project to bring the organ up to date as we now hear in this recording, alleviating past problems with insufficient and leaky winding and inadequate balance between the reeds and flue pipes. The restoration was part of a larger £70 million, 8-year rennovation of the entire hall which included numerous improvements to seating, ventilation, parking, gardens, restrooms, restaurants and backstage areas.

The spectacular new recording features Liszt's magnum opus, the Fantasy and Fugue on “Ad Nos, ad Salutarem Undam” and his St Francis Walking on the Waves, together with Herbert Howell's Rhapsody in C# minor, the beautiful major work Wanderer Fantasy by Sir Hubert Parry, the dazzling Toccata of Marcel Lanquetuit, and, to honour the Royal Albert Hall and the great ceremonial and royal associations of the Hall, transcriptions of Elgar's mighty Nimrod, from the Enigma Variations, and the first Pomp and Circumstance March, as well as a jaunty Fanfare by John Cook, to display several more of the Hall's brilliant reeds. The CD booklet contains numerous photos of the organ, as well as detailed notes on the music and articles about the instrument and its history.

The Hall is crowned by an 800' frieze around the building with the inscription: “This Hall was erected for the advancement of the Arts and Sciences and works of industry of all nations in fulfillment of the intention of Albert, Prince Consort”. He would be pleased.

Interviews & Reviews

Click here for “An interview with Dame Gillian Weir: recording the Royal Albert Hall organ, November 2004” from the May 2005 Organists' Review.

Dame Gillian Weir on rediscovering England's 'parish hall' organ
‘There has been so much interest in the Royal Albert Hall organ that I felt that I must explore every facet, every colour, for everybody’s sake. I even used the drum stop! But this is not demonstrating the organ, rather using it to interpret some wonderful music. Dubbed “the parish hall of England”, the building is remarkable, and its organ is its heart.

‘Liszt’s Fantasia and fugue on ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’ requires a Wagnerian registration and a huge instrument able to overwhelm the listener and also to withdraw dramatically into the distance. Transcribing a piano piece for the organ (Liszt, St Francis of Paola walking on the waves, arr Rogg) enlarges its emotion - the sound of the waves coming up from 32-foot pitch and the wonderful reeds - audiences adore it. Parry’s Toccata and Fugue, The Wanderer has a cumulative effect that is unbelievable. The more I played this piece, the more moved I became by it, mixing the colours to give a warmth that is particularly English.

‘Howells was my teacher at the Royal College of Music. He wrote the Rhapsody No 3 during an air raid, which has given it great dramatic tension and force. Every note of it means something, it has beautiful lines and an inevitability about it.

‘I adore orchestral music and I love the way the tubas in Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ come through the texture. I spent hours working on the stop changes to make the crescendi and diminuendi seamless.

‘I would like people to be pleased with the way the organ has been documented in this recording - and proud of the way it sounds.’

Interview by Matthew Power, Gramophone, July 2005

“Weir, as ever, is on top form and impresses from beginning to end.” The Organ, 2006

“The fabled Royal Albert Hall organ, the largest in the British Isles, has happily undergone a very successful restoration following many years of decline from old age. And who better to perform the first recording on the restored giant the the Grand Dame of organists—Gillian Weir? She has known the instrument intimately since the beginning of her career, and demonstrates it in all its glory. Her rendering of Liszt's Ad nos is worth the price of the disc itself. Registrations highlight the instruments' bountiful tonal resources; the many chorus reeds are particularly stunning in the power, smoothness, and contrast. In this, as well as Liszt's St. Francis of Paola and works of Howells, Parry, Cook, Elgar (Nimrod, Pomp and Circumstance No. 1), and Lanquetuit, Weir combines breathless virtuosity with exquisite poetry in her inimitable way. It is difficult to imagine a more perfect marriage of player, repertoire, and instrument. This is a superlative musical experience of heroic proportions. The American Organist, July 2006

“My 2005 Chirstmas offering will definitely be Gillian Weir's stunning disc from the Royal Albert Hall. Her virtuosity and imaginative use of all the resources of the mighty Willis organ form a perfect partnership with this colourful and charismatic instrument.” Christopher Nickol, Gramophone, December 2005

“This is a sort of ‘Last Night of the Proms’ rolled into 78 minutes: first the serious stuff, then the fun. Actually, it's all fun in the sense that any muscian would take utter delight in Dame Gillian's playing. She has the ability to endow any work with a stature which elevates it to the great or near-great, and to bind together those multi-sectional organ works which so often fragment in the hands of lesser players. These qualities are manifestly evident in her new CD - the first recorded on the restored organ in the Royal Albert Hall - ‘The Iron Voice’ as its publicists christened it.

Another quality equally manifest is her evident delight in avidly seeking out as many varied registrations as the music can reasonably take. So vast are the instrument's resources that one feels one scarcely hears the same combination twice. Nowhere is this more evident than in the seemingly endless varieties of forte or fortissimo combinations - some magnificent with Mixtures, some resonant with reeds, some breathtakingly with great clusters of both, all underpinned by the 35-stop Pedal Organ with its ability to provide a bass or chorus for any manual combination - from delicate Saliconal 16ft to earth-shaking Ophicleides 32/16/8ft. The other remarkable variety is in both the soft solo reed colours and, particularly, in the range of choice of loud solo reeds: three sets on the Great, one set on the Swell, and no fewer than nine big reeds to employ on the Bombarde. Dame Gillian clearly takes unfettered joy in choosing just the right Tuba for every occasion - from John Cook's effervescent Fanfare (a great favourite of Sir George Thalben-Ball, once curator of this organ, who I seem to remember made somewhat more of the final Molto Largando) to various handfuls of 8/4 reeds (just a little strident) in Pomp & Circumstance No 1.

Much of the greatest work on the CD, receiving surely a seminal performance, is Liszt's ‘Ad nos’, here finding a Beethovian stature of compelling beauty as well as power. Dame Gillian seeks out (as she does in the Parry Wanderer) a rich orchestral palette, exploring colour after colour, and each just right for the passage it is illuminating. When the power is turned on the contrast is Wagerian - one gasps. I can think of no other piece which so well suits this organ - perhaps the Reubke and the big Healey Willan come close, though even they with their fabulous richness of invention cannot match the fertility of Liszt in making a 30-minute set of variations of infinite variety out of one short melody. The St Francis of Paola work is receiving a rare recording here, certainly benefiting from the stature which a performance such as this brings to it; rather like Liszt's Orpheus it has a distinctly more diverse, improvisatory feel to it than the rigorously worked-out Ad nos.

The Howells third Rhapsody fits as if made for this sort of organ. Indeed just as one would expect, for Howells was essentailly a Gloucester man, where the early Willis in the cathedral, rebuilt by Harrison (like the RFH) was his life-long inspiration for organ tone (albeit on a smaller scale and in the most glorious acoustic).

The Elgars are given classy performances - glorious cascades of strings in Nimrod and an ensemble like the massed bands of the entire British Army, Navy and Air Force in Land of..... And to finish with, that currently popular Toccata by Marcel Lanquetuit (1894-1985), who, through a friend and pupil of Dupré, harks back firmly to Boëllmann and Widor for this foot-tappingly tuneful romp.

It would be frankly impossible to imagine a more appropriate re-lauch of the titanic instrument in Kensington Gore. Long may its iron voice resound; long may Dame Gillian fans enjoy this classic in the making. What a final Editor's Choice for me! A great Honour.” Paul Hale, Organists' Review, May 2005

“A landmark recording with Weir and instrument a perfect partnership... Liszt's Ad Nos- Weir's account of this is one of the most spectacular you'll ever hear. This is an exceptionally fine CD that I'm sure will become a landmark recording.” Christopher Nickol, Gramophone, July 2005 Editor's Choice

“Magesterial playing... exceptionally good recording quality... excellent choice of repertoire. Ad nos is simply riveting... unequivocally the most entertaining organ CD I've experienced for some time.” Peter Jewkes, The Sydney Organ Journal

“This is more than just an organ enthusiast's disc. Following the recent restoration of the Royal Albert Hall organ, Gillian Weir and the Priory team spent three all-night sessions recording this CD, the first to be made on the newly overhauled instrument. Returning to the scene of the triumphant Proma début which launched her glittering career, Weir has selected a programme of substantial romantic works together with a number of cleverly chosen arrangements. As ever, the playing is first-class. Listening to her performance of Liszt's Ad nos, it is impossible not to be swept along by the drama of the piece. Of all works she might have chosen, this surely is a marvellously appropriate choice since the orchestrally inspired writing coincides perfectly with the tonal concept of the Albert Hall organ. The range of colours suits Liszt excellently. But the timbres that vibrate in the memory are certainly the trumpet fanfares: again, not easily forgotten. At the other end of the spectrum, the lucious string sounds used in the opening of ‘Nimrod’ are simply beautiful, and the seamless crescendo later in the piece is truly impressive. Complementing the quality of the playing is the production. The recording readily captures a sense of the instrument in its acoustic, while the booklet notes are fulsome. For those who revel in the seemingly endless variety of colour that instruments like this provide, this disc is a must-have.” Warwick Cole, International Record Review, June 2005

Track Listings

Priory Records(external link) PRCD 859

TrackMusicComposer
1 Fantasia and Fugue on “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam” Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886)
2 St Francis of Paola walking on the waves Franz Liszt arr. Lionel Rogg
3 Rhapsody No. 3 in C sharp minor Herbert Howells (1892 - 1983)
4 Toccata and Fugue (“The Wanderer”) Sir Hubert Parry (1848 - 1918)
5 Fanfare John Cook (1918 - 1984)
6 Nimrod Sir Edward Elgar (1857 - 1934)
7 Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D Sir Edward Elgar
8 Toccata in D major Marcel Lanquetuit (1894 - 1985)