Pull Out All The Stops: organ gala launch concert

Oliver Condy reports from an evening celebrating the return to glory of the Royal Festival Hall organ

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Pull Out All The Stops: organ gala launch concert
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It was a pleasingly full house for last night's launch concert in the Southbank's Pull out all the stops festival at London's Royal Festival Hall. Over 2,000 people turned out to hear a multitude of soloists, brass band, a solo trumpeter, two choirs - and one organ. It's been over eight years since Harrison & Harrison's 1954 masterpiece has been heard, and we all wanted to hear whether the wait had been worth it. The evening's programme was clearly designed to show off the organ's versatility - designed as it originally was to showcase all manner of repertoire from diverse genres and eras. At the time, the Royal Festival Hall organ was something of a pioneer, an instrument that looked back as much as if glanced forward. It was an instrument that embraced the building techniques of 17th- and 18th-century Germany, yet was flexible enough for performances of Richard Strauss and Saint-Saens with the world's great symphony orchestras. A compromise, perhaps, but a fine one nevertheless. The restoration, by Harrison & Harrison, has restored the organ, as far as possible, to its original state.

Four contrasting, world-renowned organists were invited to perform: John Scott, David Goode, Jane Parker-Smith and the young Isabelle Demers, alongside the London Philharmonic and Philharmonia Brass Ensembles, the Southbank Centre's Voicelab of young children from local schools, the Elysian Singers and trumpeter Alison Balsom. And the programme of Bach, Tavener, Dupré, Maxwell Davies, Gigout, Liszt, Franck and Mendelssohn gave this concert the air of a Victorian soirée, each soloist doing 'their bit'. They all performed well, in truth, but the evening's winner was Bach: Scott's Passacaglia and Fugue was clear, controlled and exquisitely registered, and Goode and Balsom's arrangement of the BWV 972 concerto for keyboard spoke to the back of the hall and was beautifully phrased. Less successful were the Romantic pieces which needed a little more muddiness: the wonderfully metronomic playing of the Dupré B major Prelude and Fugue should have sounded less like a two-stroke engine, and more like a Bentley - the RFH acoustic is said to have improved since its revamp around seven years ago, but I'm not convinced. It's still unforgiving and a little dead in places.

There were two premieres - Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's charming Wall of Sound gave the stage to a confident young choir and showed off the organ's more intimate side, while the late Sir John Tavener made use of its more unusual mutation stops in his moving Monument for Beethoven for chorus and organ.

In all, this was a welcome return for an instrument that hopefully will take centre stage on many more occasions.

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