BBC Proms reviews

Proms 2020 Live: The Symphonic Organ @ Royal Albert Hall, London

29 August 2020

The BBC Proms are finally underway. Barry Creasy was there (virtually).

Jonathan Scott at the Royal Albert Hall organ (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Following last year’s organ Prom by Olivier Latry, there were rumblings in the organist community about the pieces chosen. Several felt that Latry should have given more of the French repertoire for which he is justly famous. Latry’s concert was heavy on transcriptions, and, this year, Jonathan Scott opted for a similar programme, made up of his own transcriptions of orchestral works. Both performers, of course, were spot on with their choices. The organ at the Royal Albert Hall is not a church instrument, but a concert instrument, and, like many of its 19th century siblings in town halls around Britain, was intended, among other things, to provide ‘music on the cheap’ – one player replacing an orchestra, yet providing a rich variety of timbres and effects.

Nowhere was the range of textures available from the instrument more evident that in the transcription of Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, where the diaphanous introduction gave way to a flurry of punchy reeds announcing the beginning of the apprentice’s spell. The famous ‘plodding’ theme was given, initially, to a fat pedal reed, and Scott eventually gave us all the chaos of the orchestral original, the main theme banging out in the pedals, accompanied by a welter of decoration on the manuals. The only disappointment was that the promised percussion stops were sadly inaudible.

Mascagni’s ‘Intermezzo’ from Cavalleria Rusticana is almost designed to be played entirely on an organ (Mascagni includes a part for it anyway in the mainly string orchestration), and this transcription did not let the composer down. Scott explored all the softer stops of the instrument, letting the theme sing out on wider metal pipes, while the string stops served as accompaniment, and a deliciously firm open wood on the pedals gave us those double bass ‘pom poms’.

“The organ at the Royal Albert Hall is not a church instrument, but a concert instrument…”

The least effective of the three shorter pieces in the programme was Rossini’s overture to The Thieving Magpie. Although the Allegro passages displayed a nimble quality, the opening Maestoso marziale suffered from too much weight. The imitation of the opening snare drum using a rapidly moving passage on low stops was an interesting idea, but it was too solid. Rossini’s orchestration at this point is certainly martial, but the cymbals, drums and triangle of the original summon a bright, brisk, military band, whereas the dense late 19th century registration chosen here left this portion distinctly earthbound.

The longest work in the concert was a transcription of Saint-Saëns’ third symphony, ‘The Organ Symphony’. Once again, Scott put the organ through its paces, pulling out some exciting effects. The busy bubbling of the Allegro moderato came through well, and there were some elegantly performed marcato expressions on the pedals. Particularly delightful was the richness of the registration used for the melody in the Poco adagio section, and the variety of textures deployed in the subsequent musical ‘conversation’. As expected the contrapuntal sections of the second large movement were crisp, but the piano ripples, while certainly shimmering, lost the twinkle that the piano duet provides. Scott found an interestingly textured reed registration for the introduction of the final build-up, and the explosion at the end allowed the organ full rein with no orchestra for it to unbalance. One missed, though, the dazzle and clash that the percussion provides in the original. Also, it must be said, some of Scott’s busy keyboard swapping caused an occasional hiatus in the beat.

The encore had been chosen by online vote, and, predictably, given the recent hoo-ha over the Last Night, the vote went to the dullest and most often heard of the three options: Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’.

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Proms 2020 Live: The Symphonic Organ @ Royal Albert Hall, London