Anniversary Concert Proves Popular

Hugh Morris

IT WAS heartening indeed to see an audience in excess of 200 gather in the Abbey on Saturday for a concert celebrating the 30th birthday of the famous Phelps organ.

At the helm for the occasion was the international concert organist Dame Gillian Weir. She has enjoyed a long association with Hexham and the organ since giving its opening recital in 1974.

As she said after the concert, she and her late husband, who built the organ, came to regard it almost as a child of theirs.

Gillian Weir is an organist who prides herself on playing organ music from across a wide section of music history and styles, and her choice of programme certainly showed this.

A substantial serving of German baroque music began the recital, with two chorale preludes and a trio sonata by Bach, and a chaconne by his elder contemporary, Buxtehude.

Such repertoire certainly works well on the organ here, and in turn we were treated to emotions of exuberance, pleading, tenderness and colour. Dashing dexterity was certainly in evidence, and by the Buxtehude, Dame Gillian had fully hit her stride.

The first half concluded with Cesar Franck's Choral no. 1, which showed beautiful pacing across an extended piece which can easily sound rather disjointed.

The second half was exclusively music from France. A trio of 18th century movements showed well the colours that can be found on the organ here, wedded as they are to the musical style of these pieces. Flamboyant joy was followed by telling intensity, and then by Dandrieu's humourous Noel de Saintonge, all played with panache.

We then reached the virtuoso showpieces in the programme. Widor's variations that open his fifth symphony are something of a tour de force, and we were given a performance with pace, urgency and a sense of organic growth.

Scarcely less testing, if perhaps less obviously so from the listener's point of view, is Durufle's ethereal Scherzo, which showed great poise and control.

To end the programme was Lanquetuit's exciting Toccata, played with a real sense of rhythmic drive - I could see people sat in my row tapping their feet in time, a rare occurrence in audiences for organ music!

After the concert Dame Gillian announced the creation of a recital award for young organists in memory of her late husband, to be known as the Lawrence Phelps Recital Award. It was certainly given a fittingly joyous inception.

Published on Friday, May 14th 2004 in the Hexham Courant
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