Dame Gillian Weir at the Royal Albert Hall

An extraordinary venue, a super programme, an exquisite performer and a beautiful evening all came together for a delightfully enjoyable experience at the Royal Albert Hall on July 2.

Dame Gillian Weir never fails to convince an audience of her incredible musicality and technical abilities, aptly demonstrated in the first piece of her programme- Variations de Concert by Joseph Bonnet. The exciting opening makes an electrifying start to any recital, with the agility of the Dame's fingers evermore apparent before the slightly melancholic theme of the variations is heard for the first time. The virtuoso pedal solo in the final variation was dazzling to watch, with the feet at one point playing four notes at the same time, the Dame's golden slippers dancing up and down the pedal board. The Variations on 'Est-ce-Mars by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck were beautifully conceived, perhaps surprisingly so on the rather robust Albert Hall organ. The registration was perfect, with the use of the reeds adding a medieval quality to the character of the music, effortlessly executed.

Undoubtedly, the highlight of the first half was the atmospheric performance of Cortège et Litanie by Marcel Dupré. Every note was handled with the upmost care and consideration with the build up of sound sending shivers down the spine. The piece is an emotively poignant one from the outset, a magical opening, with the célestes adding a rich colour to the musical palette. The Jehan Alain Litanies theme was beautifully phrased and the following build-up and toccata-like ending helped make this a truly memorable performance, and one I will remember for a long time.

It was good to hear a performance of William Mathias's Variations on a Welsh Hymn Tune. The beginning of the piece was impressively grand, followed by a delicate moment on the flutes- the Welsh melody 'Braint' singing though before six rather contrasting variations. Dame Gillian gave time for the music to breathe between sections, making the whole performance a dramatic one, abounding with the excitement and the rhythmic drive of Mathias's compositional style. The use of the tuba, while not the more pleasant sound on the Albert Hall organ, added a gritty edge to the music. A long piece, and possibly not Mathias's finest, the performance nevertheless held the listener's attention with the folk elements of the motifs, the striking harmony and galloping intensity of the music combining for an exciting performance and striking conclusion, finishing on a characteristic bare chord. The Toccata, Fugue and Hymn on 'Ave Maris Stella' by Flor Petters was an amazing end to the first half of the recital. The opening Toccata and declamation on the pedals was edge of the seat stuff, leading eventually to the delightfully rhythmic fugue and triumphant Hymn.

The second half opened with the Choral No. 2 in B minor by César Franck. The mysterious opening always reminding the listener that this is the beginning of something special, which indeed it was with the beautiful organ tremulant enriching the sound. This was delicately controlled playing with just the right amount of rubato, helping to transport the audience into the intensity of Franck's musical language.

The first movement of Paul Hindemith's Sonata No. 1 was extremely atmospheric; Dame Gillian's playing bringing out the wide range of moods and emotions, with some beautiful release at the ends of phrases. The charming opening sounds of the second movement gave an almost ethereal effect, leading on to a higly dramatic performance with a chilling conclusion.

Sergeo Slonimsky's Toccata was a virtuosic display, full of dark humor and incredibly exciting off-beat rhythms, with the carillons making a welcome appearance. The final piece, Toccata by Georgi Mushel made a sparkiling conclusion.

Jonathan Bunney, The Organ, Aug-Oct, 2010
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