Here's a winning formula to pack a concert hall for a Saturday night organ recital: book one of the country's best-known actor-managers to front the evening, invest in televisual effects, and write a good script. Throw in one of the most brilliant organists of his generation and you have it made. In Budapest on Saturday night, the combination sold out an entire concert hall.

Pál Mácsai and László Fassang © János Posztós, Müpa Budapest
Pál Mácsai and László Fassang
© János Posztós, Müpa Budapest
Over the ten years since Müpa Budapest's concert organ was inaugurated, resident organist László Fassang has occasionally been joined by actor Pál Mácsai, who presents historical background during organ recitals. For the mini-festival celebrating the organ’s tenth anniversary, Müpa Orgona10, the two artists renewed their partnership, taking the Saturday night slot of an ambitious weekend’s programming. An atmosphere of happy anticipation reigned in the packed hall, as organ music, some explanation and some anecdotes, and plenty of star quality unfolded.

Even to a non-Hungarian speaker, it was obvious that the urbane and entertaining Pál Mácsai held the capacity audience in the palm of his hand from the outset. His informally delivered presentation was received with respectful attention and good humour. Organ maestro László Fassang, moving from the console in the gallery to the electrically connected moveable console on the stage, wowed the audience too, playing all the more spectacularly virtuosic works from memory. These included the Toccata and Fugue in D minor by J.S. Bach, BWV 565, precipitously delivered (not without the odd memory lapse, here as elsewhere). We heard works by earlier German composers, and by Franck, Messiaen and Alain, with Reger’s impressive arrangement of Liszt’s Saint François de Paule: marchant sur les flots to conclude. Fassang’s playing was authoritative in this wide range of styles, though it was apparent that his particular skill lies in improvisation, the subject he now teaches at the Paris Conservatoire.

The evening was transformed by a barrage of televisual aids. A spectacular mix of multiple camera angles and coloured lighting created a kaleidoscopic cocktail from the limited natural visual action on offer. Two large screens, one on either side of the stage, projected slides to illustrate historical aspects of the commentary, and displayed rippling coloured versions of the organ facade, viewed now from stage left, now from the upper gallery, now from within the organ case. For an audience accustomed (as we all are) to the medium of film, the effect was riveting. The very act of watching an actor speak from his centre stage perch became mesmerising, constantly reinvented with so many variants of angle and colour. Rather than simply hearing the music played at a distance, we were able to see all the organist's herculean efforts in closeup, with Fassang's impeccable registration, pedalling and manual dexterity shown in some detail from several angles.

Pál Mácsai and László Fassang © János Posztós, Müpa Budapest
Pál Mácsai and László Fassang
© János Posztós, Müpa Budapest

Two elements served to enliven the programme still further. First, a copy of a little organ from Roman times, made by the builders of the 92-stop concert organ (jointly, The Organ Building Manufacture, Pecs and Orgelbau Muhleisen) was on stage, the object of a comedy turn at the outset between hand-pumper (Mácsai) and player (Fassang). Second, as the evening drew to a close, we were treated to a silent movie from 1913 with improvised organ accompaniment. Though the Müpa organ is in no way similar to theatre organs of that period, yet Fassang coaxed from it sounds which suited the mini-melodrama admirably. Named "La Purge", the French title concealed the film's origin as a product of the nascent Hungarian film industry. Its earthy humour was well matched by reedy squawks and throbbing celestes, bringing the evening to a light- hearted conclusion.

For the purist who prefers few distractions during organ music, this event might not be for you. The proportion of speech to music was weighted firmly in favour of the former, though the presence of a celebrity might soften this blow, if you are a fan. You would have to have stamina, for the event lasted almost three hours. Maybe, too, you don't rate music improvised for silent movies. However this event was a genuine celebration of the organ, its acquisition, its versatility, and its history, enjoyed by remarkable numbers of music lovers. As an object lesson in how to lure over 1400 people to an organ recital, I'd say it was a raging success.