The Royal Festival Hall’s mighty Harrison & Harrison organ has not been heard at full throttle since 2005. It was taken out of action for two years when the Hall’s acoustics were refurbished since when only one-third of the instrument has been operational. First installed in 1954 (it took four years to build), it was one of the first open plan organs in the world – and it remains a spectacular sight – but it always had its limitations. And still has, even after its £2 million face lift.
I was invited by my friend Mr Condy, editor of the BBC Music Magazine, to the Gala Concert last night broadcast live on Radio 3. He is an accomplished executant and erstwhile organ scholar, and so knows his stuff (especially his Bach) but who yet, to my mystification, finds hymns difficult to play. Anyway, the event was a sell-out and there was a palpable sense of excitement, of a long-term, worthwhile project finally fulfilled.
The programme opened with a neat arrangement for brass ensemble and organ of Guilmant’s Grand choeur dialogué, John Scott at the console. At once you were aware of the dead hand RFH acoustics. There is absolutely no reverb and, though the combined forces filled the Hall to powerful effect, each note died as soon as it was sounded. Scott followed that with the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. Clearly Bach, and contrapuntal / Baroque music in general suits the organ and acoustic better. The part playing, beautifully coloured by Scott, was translucent and integrated.
A stage hand then entered and climbed up to the organ. Only then did we realise that this was the next of the night’s soloists, the American (student of Paul Jacobs) Isabelle Demers. No stage charisma – and the tricky Scherzo from Midsummer Night’s Dream was not as polished as it might have been. The addition of the Nocturne was a bit of poor programming for an event like this. One of the highlights came next: Alison Balsom playing a piccolo trumpet in a Vivaldi Violin Concerto. David Goode provided beefy support. Then we had a Maxwell Davies commission. Hundreds of school kids with organ and brass ensemble sang a fairly approachable (for Max) setting of a new and asinine poem about the organ, typical of some second-rate earnest Hampstead writers’ group. We shan’t hear that again. The Master of the Queen’s Musick, CH, was there in person to acknowledge the applause. He seems like an amiable old cove at 82.
After the interval came another world premiere, this from the late Sir John Tavener. Full organ block chords contrasted with ethereal choir. Quite nice but over long. Then Jane Parker-Smith in a glittery black gown / cape thing gave us a Franck Fantaisie, illustrating how far from a Cavaillé-Coll is a Harrison & Harrison, and then her own demanding transcription of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No.1. It works better on the piano. Finally, the American stage hand crept on again and gave us a really impressive account (from memory) of Dupré’s B major Prelude & Fugue Op.7/1, only the third original organ piece offered for the occasion.
So – yes it’s great to have the organ back in this iconic venue and to hear the full range of its considerable palette. But it doesn’t sing. And it didn’t once send a shiver up this particular spine.