In 1871, Queen Victoria opened the Royal Albert Hall to pay tribute to her late husband, Prince Albert. This morning’s BBC Proms concert pays homage to the opening seasons of 1871 and 1880 with music inspired by the opening concerts almost 150 years ago. Sitting on the organ bench today was Westminster Abbey’s (previously St Paul’s Cathedral’s) sub-organist, Peter Holder. However, Holder is not new to the proms; his first debut was in 2019, where he performed Janá?ek’s Glagolitic Mass on its opening night.
The concert opened with Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Coronation March from his grand 1849 opera Le prophète. While listening to this stately march, I found myself lamenting that Meyerbeer’s operas are rarely performed nowadays. Nevertheless, with all of the organ stops drawn out, I was moved by the works imperial and palatial character.
No organ recital is complete without J.S. Bach, or so they say. Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue followed in a more reposed style. Holder chose a combination of quieter stops for the Fantasia, which was highly effective; it allowed one to adjust oneself to the complex eccentricities of Bach’s complex contrapuntal writing.
Moving forward 200 years, Charles-Marie Widor’s Allegro Vivace from his Symphony No. 5 followed. Most may recognise the infamous final toccata movement, notably played at weddings during the bride’s departure. However, Holder executed this opening movement with dynamism and vigour. His agility shone mid-way through where he drew the organ’s flute stops demonstrating Widor’s delicate but tortuous melodic writing. The work ends with a triple f, or ‘as loud as you can go’. Colloquially, the organist is forbidden to draw all of the stops at once at the Royal Albert Hall, as it is said to damage the brickwork due to the vibrations!
Now, onto what I was most looking forward to hearing; the Fantaisie No. 1 in Eb by the French 20th-century composer Camille Saint-Saëns. The Albert Hall organ was built in a ‘British orchestral’ style and is thus not commonly suited to French romantic organ music with heavy French diapasons and nasal reeds. Nonetheless, Holder performed the music of this centenary composer with much deftness. The highlight of this piece was the cadenza passage before the final few chords, where each hand plays the same notes by an octave apart. With the Albert Hall’s considerable acoustic, Holder managed to articulate every note so that the audience could precisely hear what Saint-Saëns had to say.
The final work in the programme was Franz Liszt’s infamous work Fantasia and Fugue on the plainchant ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’. The longest piece in the programme by a whole 20-minutes, this work was best saved to the end. Often considered one of the most challenging works in the organ repertoire, with its fast-changing harmonic progressions and dexterous melodic runs, Holder performed the piece with an incredible amount of ingenuity. The work has passages that are much akin to the organ writing of Charles-Marie Widor, whom we heard earlier, and the aesthetic of the two composers placed in the same programme created a noticeable synergy. Before the work ends, Holder managed to show off the organ’s Tuba Mirabilis stop, the loudest solo stop on the organ. Overwhelmed by the turbulence of the sound, Holder received a much-deserved standing ovation, followed by an invitation from the audience to play an encore, which he unfortunately declined.
What an extraordinary end to the concert; I am sure that this will not be the last time we see Peter Holder at the BBC Proms over the coming years!