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The Argo Organ Recordings
Simon Preston (organ)
rec. June 1963 (Widor); February 1964 (Bach, Mozart); May 1965 (others), Westminster Abbey, London
ELOQUENCE 482 4933 [2CDs: 95:24]

The notes accompanying this issue allude to the fact that Simon Preston, then at the outset of his career, recorded ten solo organ albums for Argo between 1963 and 1968. For much of that time he was firstly sub-organist and then organist at Westminster Abbey and the two original LPs that have been remastered for this interesting issue were recorded on the great instrument there. I say two; in fact the final item on the programme, Widor’s renowned Toccata, actually featured on an earlier album which boasted the unforgettably arcane title, Evensong of the Feast of the Translation of St Edward, King and Confessor and inevitably showcased the Abbey’s choir, as well as its Precentor. Fascinatingly this album marked the retirement of one of Preston’s distinguished predecessors, Sir William McKie – and Preston is listed as the sub-organist on the original sleeve. It dates from 1963, the performance of the Toccata seems daringly registered and almost provocative in terms of its dynamics, though this may have had something to do with the architecture of the Abbey, problems in managing its (apparently three second) echo and the liturgical context of its recording. I think it sounds terrific though, alive and atmospheric - a young man’s account for sure. Given the above constraints, the sound wears its 55 years pretty well.

The first CD contains the Bach and Mozart works, and these were laid down in the Abbey a mere 8 months later at a recording session unencumbered by liturgical paraphernalia and personnel. Bach’s 6 Schübler Chorale Preludes, named over time after the master engraver who first circulated them, may not exude the power and gravitas of his most imposing organ masterpieces but they are varied, skilfully constructed and in some cases oddly familiar,as five of the set are demonstrably based upon individual cantata movements. This applies most obviously to the first of the set which features the famous ‘Sleepers awake’ melody from Wachet auf , BWV 140. Preston plays them with tact, grace and subtly varied colour. They are certainly restrained compared to the more grandiose readings of the two Mozart works from the last twelve months of his life. This somewhat virile approach is probably more appropriate in KV 608, originally written for the mechanical clock, an intricate device (for the time) that could be ‘set’ to play the pipe organ. While the work is called a Fantasia, one detects an underlying Bachian seriousness that seems to anticipate the Requiem if not Mozart’s actual demise. Preston invests a powerful sense of gravitas in the work, although over the years one has perhaps become used to (and perhaps more convinced by) smaller scale interpretations of this piece. This criticism is probably even more valid when applied to its predecessor KV 594 which despite having actually been commissioned for a funeral incorporates a long, oddly soft-centred allegro within two more crepuscular slow movements. Preston’s account (together with the recording) is too imposing and grand for this reviewer’s ears. Having said that, discs of such repertoire were far from commonplace prior to 1960 and by 1965 both engineers and performers were only really beginning to adapt their techniques to comply with modern (i.e. stereo) recording practices. With this in mind it is reasonable to consider that as well as being a performer of consummate taste and fastidious technique Simon Preston was something of a pioneer in the dissemination of commercial organ recordings.

All the items on the second disc (with the exception of the Widor) emerged a year later on a release entitled ‘Crown Imperial’. The eponymous composition by Walton was clearly receiving its first recording in Herbert Murrill’s organ arrangement and judging by the response of at least one (very famous – no names, no pack drill!) critic of the time brought into question the whole idea of good taste where organ transcription is concerned. Given that we take this arrangement somewhat for granted now both performance and recording are appropriately majestic. Other offerings worth mentioning include Edwin Lemare’s rather cinematic treatment of the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannhäuser (which does sound rather out of place) and a fine performance of the Final from Vierne’s first Organ Symphony. The Schumann transcription sounds oddly modern and provides an oasis of calm given the company it keeps here. The Jeremiah Clarke items are colourfully rendered – they raise a smile particularly for ears at least partially conditioned by the 1960s comedy records of Peter Sellers. In summary, the second disc is an agreeable potpourri which again sounds pretty good and is perhaps not to be taken too seriously.

As I’ve mentioned previously Australian Eloquence are making all of these Simon Preston Argo records available again in what is a bumper release (three single and four double disc sets in total). My reviews of the pick of these reissues which all feature more challenging repertoire will follow in due course. In the meantime the present disc is arguably one designed more for Simon Preston (or Argo) completists.

Richard Hanlon
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Six Schübler Chorale Preludes (1746) [20:46]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Orgelstück (Fantasia) in F minor, KV 608 (1791) [11:30]; Adagio & Allegro in F minor, KV 594 (1790) [10:02]
William WALTON (1902-83)
Crown Imperial: A Coronation March (1937) (arr. Murrill) [9:13]
Jeremiah CLARKE (1673-1707)
The Prince of Denmark’s March (arr. Preston) [1:22]
Trumpet Tune (atttr. Purcell, arr. C H Trevor) [1:14]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Dead March from Saul, HWV 53 (1739 (arr. F Cunningham Woods) [4:44]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Imperial March, Op 32 (1897) (arr. George C Martin) [5:09]
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937)
Final (from Symphony No 1 in D minor, Op 14 (1899) [6:04]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannhäuser (1845) (arr. Lemare) [5:51]
Alexandre GUILMANT (1837-1911)
March on a theme of Handel, Op 15 (1861) [6:05]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Study for Pedal Piano, Op 56 No 5 (1845) (arr. John E Ward) [2:54]
Sigfrid KARG-ELERT (1877-1933)
Marche Triomphale: Nun danket alle Gott, Op 65 (1909) [3:31]
Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937)
Toccata (Allegro) from Organ Symphony No 5 in F minor Op 42 No 1 [5:37]



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