In Appreciation – Simon Preston

by Ben Hogwood

It is with some sadness that we have learned of the death of Simon Preston, a great English organist, at the age of 83.

From the warmth of the tributes paid to Preston on social media, it is clear he was well liked:

I was fortunate enough to interview Simon back in 2008 for the Classical Source website, where we spoke about the music of J.S. Bach, promoting an all-Bach concert in that years BBC Proms festival. It was a chance to thank him for some wonderful recordings made for Decca and Deutsche Grammophon, some of which we present below.

There is only one place to start – his impish recording of Charles Ives’ riotous Variations on America, which sounds like one of the most fun pieces to play! Also included are Preston’s exploits as a conductor, which are often overlooked, We have included his account of Vivaldi’s Gloria in a playlist that includes Bach (naturally) but also a few of his more Romantic offerings recorded for Decca:

Listening to Beethoven #3 – Fugue for organ in D major


The organ of the Minorite Church in Bonn, which Beethoven played at the age of 12. Photograph from 1905, in the collection of the Beethoven-Haus Bonn

Fugue in D major WoO 31 for organ (1783, Beethoven aged 12)

Dedication not known
Duration 2’15

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Although Beethoven regularly played the organ in his years at the Bonn court, he wrote virtually no organ music – and what survives is certainly not well known. The DG notes for their complete Beethoven edition describe it as a ‘rather modest two-voice fugue in D, written at the age of 11 or 12’ – and that’s it.

Thoughts

Yes it may be modest – and in the end it is relatively unmemorable – but there is something very impressive about the sure-footed way this fugue goes about its business. The thematic entries are textbook, Beethoven following the rules when it comes to writing a fugue, but the arrival at the big held note on the pedals towards the end feels inevitable – as does the conclusion.

Recordings used

Simon Preston (DG), Janette Fishell (Naxos)

Whereas Simon Preston’s version keeps moving it has quite a remote tone, recorded at more of a distance. Janette Fishell (Naxos) gives the fugue a warmer registration on the organ and brings it to life more. The final cadence feels more impressive in her hands.

Spotify links

Simon Preston

Janette Fishell

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4BJCc2kWe7McJUVsR7t7bF?si=yrxRSnPxTe6qtJRREUNSLQ

Also written in 1782 AlbrechtsbergerMass in D major Albrechtsberger was Beethoven’s teacher for a while, and you can read about him here

Next up Rondo in A major