Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Bach to the audience: Robert Quinney at the Royal Festival Hall

3 March 2023

Robert Quinney delivers some stellar Bach organ works from the RFH organ.

The Harrison & Harrison organ at the Royal Festival Hall (Photo: Barry Creasy)

The organ at the Royal Festival Hall was originally built in 1954 by Harrison & Harrison; after a silence of nearly a decade from 2005, for a reconstruction following the restyling of the RFH itself, it began sounding again in 2014. Those of us who remember the instrument in its former days might question whether the rebuild has retained the oomph of the old one (it doesn’t, for example, sound quite as vociferous in the big Mahler symphonies as it once did), but its neoclassical voicing still provides a glorious range of textures for a solo recital such as Robert Quinney’s all-Bach programme on Friday evening.

The toccata of the Toccata and Fugue in F (BWV 540) is, arguably, Bach’s most mathematically constructed tranche of organ music. After an astonishing opening in which Bach wrings every harmonic change from the manuals over a single, sustained pedal F (held for over a minute), and the ferociously busy pedal passage that follows, we’re presented with a series of near-identical sequences in a musical Möbius strip from which there seems no way out – except, this is Bach, whose first language was music, and with a flick of the harmonic wrist, he opens a gate to some elegant cadential phrases. It’s a challenge for any organist, but Robert Quinney made it all sound effortless, adding drama by slightly changing the length of Bach’s brisk chordal statements on their reappearance. After all this, the fugue – with its less agile, rather academic subject – can feel a bit of an anticlimax, but Quinney ensured that, with variety in registration choices and clarity of line, it retained (and built on) the excitement generated by the toccata.

“…after a silence of nearly a decade from 2005… it began sounding again in 2014”

It was perhaps in the two trio sonatas (BWV 525 in E-flat and BWV 529 in C) that Quinney got the most out of the instrument’s wide range of timbres. Each movement of each sonata was a model of stereophonic presentation across the generous physical span of the organ (it occupies the width of the stage), and, over a generally quiet, warm pedal sound, each of the upper parts shone with its own textural lustre, be it wood versus metal (this combination, over a breathy pedal sound, in the second movement of BWV 529 was particularly effective) or, as in the busy third movement of BWV 525, a ‘straight’ lower voice against a mutation combination in the upper. Letting a reed stop out of the box for the upper voice in the final bouncy Allegro of BWV 529 was a perfect curtain closer to the sonata.

The inexorable progress of the fugue of Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 538, ‘Dorian’) is another of Bach’s compositional masterpieces, and Quinney, after wowing us with some dextrous manual swapping for the driven complexity of the toccata, crafted a perfect dynamic shape – building the fugue to a forte before taking its more elaborate contrapuntal conversation across to the right-hand side of the instrument with a quieter registration, and returning to the centre with a solid sound that peaked in a truly thunderous fortissimo final pedal entry.

Not content with displaying two bright binary stars in the composer’s canon, Quinney finished his recital with the supernova Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor (BWV582) whose slow build over a bass figure and fiendish double-subject fugue present their own special challenges. Again, Quinney breezed it, opening the pedal subject on a soft buzz, adding flutes, then working gradually up in dynamic from there, to construct a seamless increase in dynamic over which the subject was occasionally brought out on a solo stop. After a contrasting section played on toots and pops of mutation stops, the Passacaglia resumed its implacable progress, with a brilliantly managed transition of the ground bass into the first subject of the fugue, whose carefully observed (and insouciantly ornamented) progress took us to a resounding conclusion underpinned by the organ’s massive pedal reeds.

A brief keyboard work by William Byrd (the 400th anniversary of whose death falls this year) as an encore completed a highly enjoyable reminder of what a tremendous recital instrument we have at the Festival Hall.

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Bach to the audience: Robert Quinney at the Royal Festival Hall