BBC Proms reviews

Prom 54 review – an enjoyable afternoon of organ music from Isabelle Demers

26 August 2023

The Canadian organist makes her BBC Proms debut in a programme of Bach, Coleridge-Taylor, Laurin, Prokofiev, Still and Wagner.

Prom 54

Isabelle Demers (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

“I’m hoping to cover the entire gamut of dynamics (and timbres) in my recital,” remarked Isabelle Demers in Saturday afternoon’s programme note, and in this we were not in the least disappointed. Across the varied programme (that covered several bases: celebrating Max Reger’s 150th anniversary; works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, one of this year’s spotlight composers; bringing first performances of pieces by North American composers Rachel Laurin and William Grant Still to the Proms; some customary Bach – but arranged by another great organist Marcel Dupré – and a couple of transcriptions of familiar orchestral music) ‘the voice of Jupiter’ not only thundered, but chattered and whispered, in a host of voices that surprised, beguiled, warned and startled.

The grandiloquent orchestral gestures of Richard Wagner seem to be made for transcriptions for a large concert organ, but as we heard earlier this year in the Festival Hall recital by Olivier Latry, they present challenges: the thickness of Wagner’s writing is ameliorated orchestrally by the heterogeneity of timbres that sound the notes in each harmonic tangle, something not entirely reproduceable with a keyboard. For the Prelude to Act I of Meistersinger Demers’ solution was to present a whirling variety of texture – changing registrations every few bars, from bright reeds to quiet flutes to mutations with a solo stop. It was certainly a tour de force, and the soupiness was somewhat dissipated, but the flow of the piece suffered, such that the transitions (particularly at the speed some of the louder passages were taken) felt clunky.

Rachel Laurin’s Prelude and Fugue (‘Big Ben’) is a fascinating piece; firstly, despite it being written in 2020, its musical language is that of a century or more earlier; secondly, as it was designed for its two parts to be played before and after a service, the prelude – a slow, quiet, tuneful pastorale that might have come from the pen of Healey Willan – feels almost totally disconnected from the playful fugue, whose subject is the Westminster chime squeezed into triple time. Demers brought all of this charming duplicity to the fore through a careful selection of registrations (the brief ‘spooky’ modulation of the fugue, suggesting the Palace of Westminster in the fog was particularly effective).

J.S. Bach’s Sinfonia to Cantata BWV 146 began life as the first movement of his Keyboard Concerto in D Minor, and on its reuse in the cantata, the harpsichord was swapped for an organ, so when Marcel Dupré transcribed the whole piece for the latter instrument, half his work was already done. Nonetheless, Dupré’s realisation of the instrumental parts, such that the whole could be played by two hands and two feet was not only a demonstration of his understanding the requirements of playing technique, but also a testimony to his complete immersion in the idiom. Arguably, this was the best piece in the concert, and Demers’ performance narrative was spot on in highlighting solo keyboard sections (either through bringing out important passages on a separate manual, or taking the busy contrapuntal mutterings into a box in the guts of the instrument) and some punchy passages on the front-facing pipes for the ripieno work.

“the varied programme… not only thundered, but chattered and whispered, in a host of voices that surprised, beguiled, warned and startled”

Isabelle Demers

Isabelle Demers (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

It is always a delight to hear newly resurrected works by the much neglected Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and his Op. 78 Three Impromptus made an enjoyable addition to the programme. They are simple pieces – essentially da capo arias – but again, Demers had carefully chosen her registrations not only to contrast the central section of each with its bookends, but also to ensure that each of the three displayed its different colourings.

Max Reger’s name sings loud in the organ repertoire, and he is known for his monumental keyboard works. His Chorale Fantasia on ‘Ein Feste Burg…’ affords plenty of scope for changes in timbre, as it alternates massive statements of Luther’s familiar hymn with densely written variations. Demers took all of this in her stride, tackling the fiendish counterpoint with élan, yet taking the time to let the solo material shine through a range of stops. The sudden diminuendo before the final blast was spine tingling.

William Grant Still’s 1963 Elegy is also a work that seems out of its time. It’s a beautifully warm piece that seems at first to belong to the English Romantic school, but its open Copland-ish intervals immediately mark it as being from the other side of the Atlantic. Demers’ use of rich, string stops growing to an almost Howellsian swell perfectly encapsulated its character, and the closing gentle tinkle of one of the organ’s bell stops sealed the charm deal.

Demers’ own transcription of excepts from Sergei Prokofiev’s music for the ballet Romeo and Juliet closed the concert with a brilliantly considered exploration of the instrument’s capabilities, the 10 contrasting scenes providing the basis for a kaleidoscope of timbral colours, from the plop and quack of ‘The Street Awakens’ through the bubbling of mutation stops in ‘Aubade’ to the flatulent pedal notes and brash reeds of ‘Dance of the Knights’.

Prom 54 can be audio streamed from BBC Sounds.

• Details of the 2023 BBC Proms season can be found here.

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Prom 54 review – an enjoyable afternoon of organ music from Isabelle Demers