Recital Review



Organist Simon Preston

April 20, 2004 - Brevard, NC:


International Organ Legend Simon Preston has played for the Queen, more than once. That his style should be impeccable is not surprising. He is the current living master of the English cathedral organ style. He also has a strong reputation as master of all the varied organ styles. It was a great privilege and a great fascination to be able to hear - and to see - him play on April 20, in Brevard.

The Porter Center stage was equipped, immediately below the Ruckpositiv of the organ, with its usual large screen and video projector. This apparatus was flanked by theatrical uplights projected onto the case of the organ.

The lighting at the keyboard and the color balance were better adjusted and the image was of better quality than my previous experience here; the apparatus provided a sharp image of the performer from organ bench up. Preston did a superb job of acting as if he were not a consummate showman, and of acting as if he did not know he was being observed by the entire audience. Many of his muggings, evincing shocked surprise when the pressing of a combination button caused a huge number of stop knobs to jump out at him, seemed very effective in winning him a positive rapport with his audience. This rapport did not prevent many of them from bailing out at intermission. I wonder if they were expecting jazz-on-the-Hammond.

Organ audiences in the Porter Center listen and watch in total darkness. When the first piece began, I couldn't see my program and had a bit of a brain lapse over "this piece of Mendelssohn I had never heard," until I recalled that it was Samuel Sebastian Wesley's Choral Song and Fugue. But of course. The first half of the concert was Mendelssohn and his circle. Next came Bach's Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, S.543, the piece Mendelssohn chose for his first big recital at Westminster Abbey.

The A Minor is a perennial favorite of organists everywhere. An organist friend of mine was working on this piece when I was an undergraduate at Chapel Hill. I suppose, being his volunteer page-turner of choice, I have heard this piece played as many times as any non-organist in the world. Preston chose a quite rapid tempo and sustained it with grace and ease. Even the unusual upward jumps of an octave in the pedal, nicely delineated, were easy and self-assured. The acoustics would have accepted a lot more detached style.

From Bach, Preston went to the work of a contemporary of Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and played the Four Sketches, Op. 58. Preston recounted how the Schumanns had set out intentionally to become great organ composers and had bought a pedal piano for their house. This music sounds like pedal piano music. Preston mostly honored this with a very percussive keyboard style, but once in a while Schumann and Preston together would ease into a very organistic style, with lots of long suspensions. The Schumann-Mendelssohn connection belongs in a musicology class; the program would have been stronger without the Schumann.

To get back on a totally idiomatic organ foundation before intermission, Preston gave us (and it was definitely a fine gift) Mendelssohn's Allegro, Choral and Fugue. Preston's playing exudes competence, at the expense of excitement. But his tempos are quite brisk, his legatos are smooth, and his staccatos are very clipped. The audience was easily able to see, via the projection video, Preston's extensive use of the combination action; I do not think I saw him touch a stopknob at all during the program. He continuously added to the registration in the Fugue (as in almost every other piece), leafing to a loud and brilliant conclusion.

Following intermission, Messiaen's L'Ascension filled the audience's minds with the vision of some vast French cathedral, the altar in the blue distance through the clouds of incense, evoking the most spiritual and elevated religious feelings of a devout worshipper at the feast of the Ascension. These four "symphonic meditations," highly symphonic and highly meditative, are not among my favorite compositions but, having heard the set some dozen times in my life, I think Preston offered the best-understood interpretation I have heard. These pieces are not easy music, but Preston's legendary skill made them flawless, smooth, and very powerful. This performance built on suspense and tension, skillfully evoked by the playing. The final Priére could have been, as it often is in lesser hands, something of an anticlimax, but the tension, awe, and majesty were maintained to the end.

As I mentioned, at intermission there was a lemming-stampede for the retirement community buses, leaving me surrounded by organ aficionados, professional organists, and their spouses for the second half of the concert. The complete gamut of opinions among them about Preston's playing mirrored my mixed feelings about the concert, but each seemed to hold firmly to only one view. One organist was very excited, and one was practically disgusted. They heard the same thing; they were sitting in the same row. I heard the same thing and shared both feelings, sitting in the row behind them. It is easy to understand their divergent opinions. Preston's reputation and fortune are safe; I feel released thereby to say what I feel. I felt that there was a misdirection in his playing. Preston's playing is that of a very skillful actor at the organ, performing a consciously-rehearsed but non-existent excitement. I hesitate to mention those two cliches: British reserve and stiff-upper-lip. But I felt that Preston was not really willing to become a part of the music; he was its master, neither its partner nor its servant. As there is nationalism in the historic styles of organ building and organ composition, so is there nationalism in styles of organ playing. Preston is best in English cathedral music (even when composed by a German); across the Channel, French cathedral music such as L'Ascension requires a Gallic insouciance and a Roman Catholic heart to play a quintessentially Roman Catholic piece of white-hot keyboard liturgy.

Preston's single national style lends to my big complaint about his interpretation of Ives' Variations on "America." Many still remember E. Power Biggs' recorded performance (the master tapes of which are sadly lost) of the Variations on a typical New England church organ in Woodstock. Ives, a professional church organist at 14, composed the Variations when he was 17; he is reported to have said that playing them was as much fun as playing baseball. Biggs' recording had all of the young-America arrogance and New England simplicity that makes these pieces so joyous. The Variations have written into them all of Ives' quirky humor and need only teenager Hey-Look-At-Me to make them funny and exciting; they don't need and don't respond well to European court-dress technique and big-organ resources and complications. The New England church music world in 1892 was a far more sober place than anything we experience today. The Variations need the limitations and the simplicity of a small-town church organ (even if Massachusetts was the organ-building capital of the country at the time). I believe these pieces were intended to get their effect from the shock value of hearing them in church on the sacred instrument and not from the village band. Preston's performance was too "concert-hall," far too legato; his registrational changes were far too slick.

The final piece on the program, Toccata by Franz Schmidt, a contemporary of Ives, could not have been more of a contrast to the quirky, daring writing of Ives. The highly developed Bach heritage of 19th-century Germanic Europe, both good and bad, as developed by Mendelssohn and Max Reger and amplified by Schmidt's skill as a composer, gave Preston full scope for his urban skill. Although I like the Ives much more, this was a far superior presentation of Preston's polish and ability.

Those who remained to the end were treated to an encore, another of Schumann's pedal piano pieces, a neat little canon, similar in style and execution to the others.