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This handsome book celebrates the 545 recitals given at the Royal Festival Hall in London by nearly 200 organists over 34 years, beginning in 1954 with the inauguration of the famous Harrison & Harrison organ. In colourless post-war Britain the 3,000-seat RFH and its 103-stop electro- pneumatic organ were visionary concepts, and the organ’s designer, Ralph Downes, was well qualified to design the tonal structure. The idea was to produce a versatile, eclectic organ, suitable for performances of the best schools of organ music. As Felix Aprahamian noted, Bach’s organ music at the time was more well- known to audiences in orchestral arrangements, but on this new instrument, the writer stated, ‘Bach … will be given authentic voice.’

Hoyle focuses on the instrument, the players, the repertoires and audience figures, as well as providing a context of English organ culture before 1954, when repertoire was based on transcriptions, and playing techniques dominated by legato touch, pistons and swell boxes. This changed with the Haarlem Improvisation Competition and Summer Academy, awareness of French improvisation practice, British discovery of authentic baroque organs in Europe, and research into historical performance practices.

Programme committees juggled with the dichotomies of established recitalists/younger players, standard/new repertoire, improvisations and transcriptions under successive chairmen. Peter Hurford’s complete Bach Organ Festival (1980-81) was perhaps the most successful, whereas Ligeti’s experimental Volumina famously fused the organ.

Hoyle’s penchant for statistics reveals itself in 44 tables analysing all aspects of the entire series (although the organ specification is absent), and in the spirit of the RFH’s mission to ‘entertain and educate’ writes short tangential essays aimed at de-mystifying organ and music jargon for amateurs. Critiques of individual performances are mostly avoided, but the anecdotes are amusing. Further research could produce a history of British organ playing in the 20th century, within which the RFH organ series would be pivotal.

DAVID PONSFORD Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Choir & Organ, 2019 - ©Rhinegold Publishing