A Phenomenal Royal Festival Hall Recital by Wayne Marshall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Widor, Dupré, Marshall: Wayne Marshall (organ). Royal Festival Hall, London, 29.4.2019. (CC)

Wayne Marshall

Widor – Organ Symphony No.6 in G minor, Op. 42/2 (1880)

Dupré – Organ Symphony No.2 in C sharp minor, Op. 26 (1929)

Marshall – Improvisation on submitted themes

Two major works met with the age-old tradition of organ improvisation in Wayne Marshall’s ambitious and magnificent recital, which married music of teacher (Widor) and pupil (Dupré) with an improvisation on themes given in a sealed envelope just prior to the performance.

Eschewing the popular Symphony No.5 by Charles-Marie Widor, Marshall opted instead for the Sixth, premiered at the Paris Trocadero in 1880 on a Cavaillé-Coll organ. The RFH organ is a massive and imposing beast, fully equipped for the sonic regality of this work. Marshall played this piece from memory. It opens in a blaze of light and is marked allegro vivace – Marshall certainly took it fast, yet miraculously his fingerwork was clear, while his virtuosity with the pedals was astonishing. Nowhere was this virtuosity clearer than in the ultra-fleet Intermezzo, actually a devilish Scherzo with jagged, shard-like accented chords.

The first movement holds a moment of stasis, of pure magic when the main theme is stated high up over rapid pedal work. There was no missing the beautiful French harmonies of the Adagio, with its radiant use of the instrument’s string stops; but it is the Cantabile fourth panel that is the real still centre of the work, where the simplest gesture (the cadential high ascending scale fragment, for example) takes on huge emotive weight. The finale echoes the searing light of the first movement, the sound absolutely huge and yet the lines still clear, the end absolutely glorious.

Not only is there a teacher-pupil link between Widor and Dupré, but both were also organists at Saint Sulpice. Unlike his First Symphony, Marcel Dupré’s Second Symphony is a notated work. A little explanation is perhaps required around that ‘notated’ comment: Dupré improvised his First Symphony (Symphonie Passion) at the Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia and then wrote it down (as he remembered it) in his hotel room afterwards, whereas the Second is a traditionally composed work. Opting to use the music for his performance, Marshall gave as brilliant an account as he did of the Widor. Dupré’s musical vocabulary is sharper, more acerbic than Widor’s. The opening ‘Preludio’ presents a number of ideas under the overall umbrella of a free toccata (in fact, there is a decidedly toccata-like theme in the voix célestes). Fast, dissonant and disjunct, it requires contrast, which comes in the form of the ‘Intermezzo’; but there is no cosy warmth here, more an icy kaleidoscope of colours. The finale (there are only three movements) is a toccata, complex and fearsomely difficult. The manner of presentation of the theme – sturdily, under relentless upper-voice chords – sets the tone of the movement, where sinewy chromaticism contrasts wildly with the open intervals of the opening chords.

The recital had been magnificent so far, then; and so it continued, with Marshall, after reading out several suggestions for his improvisation (including ‘climate change’) opting for a request for an improvisation on themes by Beethoven (to honour Beethoven’s 250th anniversary next year) with the added spice of Happy Birthday. This was a supreme example of living on the edge, the audience tracing the unfolding of the piece as it was created. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the Ode to Joy (including a positively transmogrified ‘take’) and the last movement of the Violin Concerto were all prime thematic participants, crowned as the work progressed with Happy Birthday to You, which crept in beautifully. Für Elise made a beautifully playful appearance. Impressive, certainly, but most of all, involving.

This was a brilliant recital. In terms of duration, it was an early bath, but one wonders just how many notes Marshall played in that time … he is certainly a prime virtuoso of our time, and nothing short of a phenomenon.

Colin Clarke

For more about Wayne Marshall click here.

1 thought on “A Phenomenal Royal Festival Hall Recital by Wayne Marshall”

  1. Phenomenal is the correct description. What made it all the more inspiring was that I was celebrating my 70th birthday at this recital and so the improvisation on Beethoven themes and Happy Birthday was an extra surprise.


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