Those of us who made our way to Warrington last Friday evening were rewarded with a fabulous double recital by Roger Fisher and Benjamin Saunders. Although it was four years since the Parr Hall organ's previous concert, the "Bracewell Queen" was in fine form after being expertly tuned by David Wells, the firm who maintain many notable local organs, including both of Liverpool's cathedrals. Roger Fisher performed the first half, consisting entirely of music from the French symphonic tradition. Franck's Pastorale, dedicated by the composer to Cavaille-Coll, was a particularly appropriate choice. To make up for the lack of modern registration aids, Roger Fisher sensibly provided himself with two assistants (one of them his wife) to operate the large draw-knobs. He finished with Guilmant's March on a theme of Handel, the last section providing a wonderful opportunity to sit back and soak up the thrilling C-C full organ sound.
The second half was quite different, but no less enjoyable, as Benjamin Saunders set out to demonstrate the organ's versatility by mixing classical works with jazz and minimalism. I don't remember hearing Lotus Blossom by Billy Strayhorn, Mad Rush by Philip Glass or Air for rock organ by Dick Hyman at an organ recital before, but they all worked beautifully. He also explained how hearing the Parr Hall organ as a boy made him decide to give up the cello and start learning the organ in the first place.
Considering the enormous historic importance of the Parr Hall organ as the largest unaltered Cavaille-Coll instrument in the UK, it's surprising it isn't a little more celebrated than it is. Instead, there seems to be a big question mark hanging over its future. One controversial scheme being considered is to remove it from Warrington and install it in Sheffield Cathedral. There, it would at least get more regular use, but there is understandable opposition from the locals who don't want to lose this important part of their heritage. I also hope it stays where it is because I'm not a big fan of cathedral acoustics, and it seems to fit the hall so perfectly. The most important thing is to preserve it as a working instrument, a lasting monument to Cavaille-Coll's genius and a source of immense pleasure to all who hear it, as it was to John Turner Hopwood, its first owner. "The organ is perfect," he wrote to Cavaille-Coll in 1871, "I am delighted with your work." And 140 years later, we still are. Happy Birthday, Aristide!