United Kingdom Organ Spectacular – Bach, Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Jongen: James O’Donnell (organ), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Dirk Brossé (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 19.1.2018. (CC)
J.S. Bach –Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565
Saint-Saëns – Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op.78, ‘Organ’
Fauré – Pavane, Op.50
Jongen – Symphonie concertante, Op.81
Concerts with the title ‘Organ Spectacular’ are not my usual fare, but the inclusion of Jongen’s Symphonie concertante in the present programme was too tempting. It was presented with three favourites, the first of which enabled the audience to bask in the glory of the Festival Hall’s five-division, four-keyboard organ. Built in 1950-54 and reconstructed between 2005 and 2007. There was no doubting its majesty in James O’Donnell’s reading of the (possibly spurious) Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565. The huge aggregate of sound that opens the work was staggering in pure decibel terms; O’Donnell, Organist and Master of Choristers at Westminster Abbey, offered superb clarity of fingerwork (including a preternaturally even trill). The grandeur of the reading, as well as of the instrument itself, was never in doubt.
The organ’s contribution to Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony is more sporadic and less soloistic than in the Jongen; but it often colours the orchestral sound highly effectively, and certainly provides a glorious conclusion. The connection between conductor Dirk Brossé and orchestra on this occasion was questionable, however: while the first movement introduction was well sustained, the Allegro moderato tended to the literal. Ensemble in the orchestra was often just there, and there was a niggling feeling that the orchestra was on autopilot, disengaged from Brossé’s movements. There was no denying the beauty of the second movement, a Poco adagio in which the organ presents a simply beautiful bed of sound over which melodies can unfold; but it was telling that a dialogue between first and second violins that can be magical was simply drab – antiphonally-placed violins would have made a better effect, too, but the real problem lay with the players’ engagement. While the finale was definitely loud, it fell short of the required sense of the resplendent; it only just avoided bombast.
Brossé is a fairly mobile conductor on the podium; he has a quirk whereby he has two music stands, one for the score and the other for his spectacles while he conducts. The problem is his gestures rarely equated to what was heard in the orchestral response.
Fauré’s Pavane flowed nicely, but there was little sense of ‘landing’ on the big chords that acts as the work’s restrained climax. Upper strings felt too bright of tone; overall this felt like a run-through rather than a performance, and one has to question how much rehearsal was accorded to this piece.
Composed in 1926, Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie concertante for organ and orchestra is a simply fabulous work. Jongen, like Franck, hailed from Liège. He composed the present piece while director of the Brussels Conservatoire, a post he held until 1939. The Symphonie concertante was intended for what was to have been the World’s largest organ (six manuals, over 280,000 pipes). The first performance at that organ’s unveiling was postponed, so Jongen’s work was premiered instead at the Brussels Conservatoire in February 1929, the composer as soloist.
Cast in four movements, the organ has a busy, taxing contribution to play. It begins with a dark woodwind pedal over which a resolute fugue sets out the work’s tone. The organ’s entry soon afterwards leads to much organ/orchestra dialogue. Despite the serious tone of the opening, there is much to delight in this piece. Occasional moments where textural muddling occurred aside, this was a refreshing account of the variegated first movement. The 7/4 second movement is marked ‘Divertimento’; it is actually the Scherzo of the work and found O’Donnell in terrific, nimble form. The music is cruel to lacklustre ensemble, however, and it was all too noticeable that when Jongen wrote the same rhythm for sections of the orchestra spatially separated on-stage, unanimity had a tendency to crumble. James O’Donnell’s contributions were faultless, though, with some wonderful piping, almost fairground-organ, moments.
The Molto lento begins with a descending phrase given by solo flute; it has to be said though that the answering phrase, on a deliciously golden clarinet, was magical (I note the clarinet was a guest principal, Jordan Black). Lovely sighing phrases against an organ pedal so low it made one’s bones vibrate. The finale features relentless roulades of semiquavers for organ supplemented by brass fanfares. The virtuosity of the organist was beyond doubt, and Jongen writes some glowing chords for orchestra in this movement. The sense of virtuosity was palpable. A great piece, and good to see and hear it live.
The LPO’s programme booklet suggests recommended recordings of the various works. Understandably it suggested its own recording of the Saint-Saëns with O’Donnell (LPO Live); but for the Jongen it was the cpo recording with the Deutsches Philharmonie Saarbrücken that prevailed, an interesting choice. That recording would furnish the listener with more Jongen – not bad thing (Passacaglie et Gigue Op.90 and the Sonate eroïca, Op.94). But there are couplings of the Jongen and the Saint-Saëns heard in the concert (which would have clashed with the LPO label choice, of course): Olivier Latry and the Liège Philharmonic on Cypress, for example, or Jean Guillou with the Dallas Symphony under Mata on Dorian.
Discographical quibbles aside, if one’s definition of ‘spectacular’ equates to ‘loud’ there was little to complain about in terms of the concert itself. However, too many instances of questionable ensemble and a general feeling of disengagement from the orchestra, possibly even ennui, turned the concert into something of a disappointment.