The Organ

Dame Gillian Weir at the Symphony Hall, Birmingham

29th November 2004

A decent audience for Gillian Weir, testament both to her musical eminence and the growing status of Symphony Hall's evening recitals (which are billed as Symphony Organ Concerts, a clunky Americanism I wish they'd drop.) Weir, too, is an old-style organist, with transcriptions and crowd-pleasing lollipops rarely finding a place in her programmes. I was pleased she also ignored the platform microphone, preferring to let the music speak for itself.

On this occasion the only nod to popular appeal was Gabriel Pierné's Trois Pièces Op. 29, shapeless meanderings displaying all the hallmarks of written-out improvisations. After eight years at Sainte-Clotilde and just this one organ composition, it's not surprising Pierné gave up the instrument to pursue secular musical interests - his heart obviously wasn't in it. The Cantilène is typical church voluntary stuff, and that interminable Scherzando de Concert sounded, in Weir's reed-dominated interpretation, particularly long-drawn and noisily awkward.

The fabulous Klais reeds were heard to more characteristic effect in her Baroque items. Three pieces from Grigny's Livre d'Orgue and a couple by Buxtehude, including the dazzling G minor Praeludium (BuxWV 149), certainly made all the right noises, although the fully-open acoustic doors occasionally hampered absolute clarity of detail. Nevertheless, Weir achieved some subtly nuanced Division effects; in Buxtehude's E minor Ciacona she also effected a gradual dynamic increase without too much change of tone colour – an impressive control of registration and couplers.

For her romantic choices she gave us a couple of real biggies, Healey Willan's Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue in E flat minor and Reubke's Sonata on the 94th Psalm. Weir's unfolding of the Passacaglia was extremely well ordered, with no two variations alike in timbre, and the build-up of sound and complexity finely managed.

What rescues the Passacaglia from total predictability is the way Willan lowers the temperature just before the end, and then inserts a quiet link into the truly phenomenal Fugue, a wild and harmonically daring tribute to Liszt and other 19th century big guns. Yes, it's an academic exercise inspired by Reger's Op. 127, but great fun, and Weir's, chiselled accuracy and total technical mastery did it full justice.

Hearing “The Reubke” played by a top-notch recitalist is always an event to savour and here, too, Weir's virtuosic brilliance and control of tonal resources was awesome. I thought she could have invested the Adagio with a little more rubato, and perhaps not overused the reeds early on; but with such an exciting concluding Allegro and blistering Fugue to send us tingling on our way home, such a complaint seems almost churlish.

David Hart