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During her illustrious career, Dame Gillian Weir has performed worldwide on a multitude of organs old and new, including at (l) King’s Lynn Minster (organ by John Snetzler, dating from 1754), and (r) Hexham Abbey (organ by Dame Gillian’s late husband, Lawrence Phelps, 1974)

THE CAREER OF DAME GILLIAN WEIR is celebrated on a new 22-CD box-set, to be released on the Decca Eloquence label to mark the organist’s 80th birthday in January.

Gillian Weir: A Celebration [Decca 484 1435] includes Weir’s complete Argo recordings and ten discs of previously unpublished BBC radio broadcasts. Among these are the complete organ works of Franck recorded on the Cavaillé-Coll organ of Saint-Sernin, Toulouse, in 1984, and the then-complete organ works of Messiaen recorded in 1979 at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C.

Further highlights include Weir’s recital from St Albans Abbey (now Cathedral) the day after winning the St Albans International Organ Competition in 1964, marking the beginning of her recording career; a 1987 BBC Proms recital of music inspired by dance; and a recording of Charles Camilleri’s Missa Mundi, one of several pieces written for and premiered by Dame Gillian.

The comprehensive box-set liner notes present essays by Weir, with reminiscences and anecdotes from the recording sessions and from her encounters with composers such as Messiaen and Mathias.

Dame Gillian told C&O that recording the


complete Messiaen for the BBC in 1979 was ‘great fun’. ‘I decided to use the [Möller] organ of the National Shrine in Washington because Messiaen had already given the premiere of his Méditations on this instrument and absolutely loved it. People tend to think of Cavaillé-Coll organs as the ultimate for French music, but Messiaen didn’t insist on a particular make of instrument; he just wanted all the colours for his music. The National Shrine organ creates especially good water drops and birdsong, and the church has fantastic acoustics.’ Weir bonded with Messiaen’s music from the outset: ‘I loved its extravagant emotions and excitement, and the extraordinary colours. It’s very dramatic, which is the way music should be: it should stir people’s emotions and speak to them. His music also connected with my love of the metaphysical poets, such as John Donne, who project that same kind of drama.’

Discs 2-7 of the box-set focus on French classical music, also a source of inspiration to Weir: ‘Louis XIV and the Golden Age fascinates me. The court dances of the time appear simple to play, and then you discover they are the quintessence of sophistication – and this is what makes them interesting. They have to be so perfect, but they express a wealth of emotion in an extremely civilised way. You can imagine a beautiful woman dancing at Versailles and hiding her emotions behind her fan…’

Recording the complete Franck at SaintSernin in Toulouse was an important project for Weir, with its Cavaillé-Coll ‘the most wonderful organ for Franck’. The recording session was followed by an eventful journey home: ‘We stopped overnight before catching the ferry, parking outside the church where Franck had his first job as organist. The next morning, we found the car windows smashed and almost everything stolen, including all my scores and notes! But we didn’t have time to stop because I had to fly to Sweden the next day. Back home afterwards, I heard that my music case had been dropped off at the British Embassy in Paris, but with no record of who had delivered it. So I fantasised that the ghosts of Franck and Cavaillé-Coll had found it and returned it for me… Why not?’

Gillian Weir: A Celebration will be released worldwide in January 2021.

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