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Music Review

British Virtuoso Closes Organ Series in Style

May 18, 1999|JOHN HENKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

British organ virtuoso Simon Preston made his U.S. debut in 1965, and a few years later the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles began an annual organ series. Performer and series have met regularly since then, with Preston's fifth appearance coming Sunday afternoon, closing the series' 30th season in spectacular fashion.

He brought with him this time a pair of his own compositions. The "Alleluyas" from 1965 is well-known to organists, an effective but relatively modest piece, played here with dramatic vigor.

More imposing was a Toccata written last year. It is a much more difficult piece, for one thing, displaying Preston's incomparable pedal work. But it is also very solid musically, moving from extroverted agitation inspired by Bach's famous D-minor Toccata to an intense development with a subtle jazzy bounce to it.

From Bach himself there were the Prelude and Fugue in D minor, BWV 539, and the Prelude and Fugue in G, BWV 541. Preston used varied registration and phrasing to emphasize the very different characters of these works. With all the stops out, the G major Fugue ended in a blaze too brilliant for clarity, but otherwise Preston kept effects nicely balanced in well-considered contexts.

The busily Bachian Allegro, Chorale and Fugue extracted from Mendelssohn's Opus 65 sonatas underscored Preston's astonishing mechanical mastery and in the process sounded like more important music than it does in lesser hands. Beethoven's early Adagio in F, however, was its usual sweet self and no more.

The rest of Preston's generous program, though just as stunningly played, could not live up to this standard. It included excerpts from larger works by Charles-Marie Widor and Percy Whitlock, Joseph Jongen's "Chant du Mai" and a bloated, unstylish Gershwin medley. In encore Preston challenged himself again, with Bach's ebullient "Gigue" Fugue in G, BWV 577.

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