The enormous organ of the Royal Albert Hall had a busy Sunday. In the evening Prom, it was due to add even more volume to Havergal Brian’s monumental ‘Gothic’ Symphony, whilst during the afternoon it was given to the charge of Stephen Farr, one of the UK’s most compelling organ recitalists, for a solo recital. The opening work was one that most organists would know, even if they do not have the technical ability to play it accurately - Litanies by the tragically short-lived French composer Jehan Alain. In this exuberant work, Alain reflects his view that prayer was “a blast of wind that sweeps all before it”. His sense of humour is indicated by his note in his first manuscript draft, suggesting that the piece was like somebody pushing a wheelbarrow while being pelted with bricks by the chasing police. That mood soon changed when tragedy struck. Three weeks after the work was completed in 1937, Alain’s sister was killed in a mountaineering accident and Alain added the dedication “When Christian souls run out of words to implore the mercy of God … they repeat over and over again the same invocation”. Less than three years later Alain, by then a dispatch rider in the French Army, was killed himself in a skirmish with German troops. Alain is said to have commented that the penultimate page is impossible to play accurately at the indicated speed, but Stephen Farr seemed to manage it with ease, producing some thrilling, if not always entirely French, sounds from the instrument. Tragedy also surrounded the following work, the rarely heard Winterberger arrangement of Liszt’s 1859 piano Prelude 'Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen' (not the well-known variations on the same theme), written shortly after the death of his son.
Following a meditative interpretation of Bach’s Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott on gently-voiced flutes (aided by the sound of rain on the roof) we came to the world premiere of Judith Bingham’s ‘The Everlasting Crown’ a large scale (32 minute) seven movement work based on a 19th century book about precious stones. The work describes an imaginary crown set with famous gemstones, each representing an aspect of royalty and ruling - Atahualpa’s Emerald (divinity), La Pelegrina (vulnerability and isolation) segueing into the Orlov Diamond (excessive ambition), the Russian Spinel (murder), King Edward’s Sapphire (piety) and (from the Peacock Throne) the Timur Ruby and the “glittering facets” of the Koh-I-Noor (conquest and spectacle). The opening (marked in the score as “A procession of great majesty”) slightly resembled a 17th century North German Praeludium, with punchy chords and a developing pedal theme based on rising and falling thirds that recur throughout the work. This led to a series of short repetitive bass motifs. Atahualpa’s Emerald is a jaunty dance (entitled “Coranta”) that opens with a pungent reed under filigree passagework before moving into a tense passage in 7/8 time. The “vulnerability and isolation” of La Pelegrina is expressed by a “mournful and gloomy” movement that includes for its second section the instruction “sounding strange and pained, but white”. The opening motif appears here in dotted rhythms before the movement subsides into The Orlov Diamond, marked “nasty”. Again the motif in thirds dominates the pedal line, which quickly moves into a passage for double pedals as the piece moves towards its final section, marked “Mad triumph”. The Russian Spinel is marked “Impulsive, rash” but ends “Slow, regretful but dark”. King Edward’s Sapphire has a gently bucolic melody marked “Fresh open air a long time ago” and then “Monkishly” and “the warm air vibrates like a mirage” and “gruffly”. The splendour of the Peacock Throne started with the lowest notes of the Albert Hall organ rumbling away – something the audience felt, rather than heard. Rapid repeating notes increased the tension until we get an “elephant stamp”. The opening of the Koh-I-Noor section could tease organists into thinking that this might end with one of their beloved French toccatas - it does not, although the work does finish on full organ. The choice of specific registrations was left up to Stephen Farr, who created an impressive kaleidoscope of colours to match the varied textures of this most impressive piece. Stephen Farr has a six months of performing rights, so will be performing it again in many different venues. And, of course, if you are quick enough, you can hear the whole concert on BBC iPlayer.
Find Concerts now