Simon Preston

In November 2017, Eloquence collects together all of the solo organ recordings that Simon Preston made for Argo. Most of these are issued on CD for the first time.

During the 1960s, it often seemed as if a new Simon Preston organ LP appeared every few months: so much in demand was his playing, so well suited was he to the recording medium’s time-management pressures, and so nonchalantly did he seem to don the mantle of the United Kingdom’s ablest young organist. Besides the ‘O magnum mysterium’ Fantasia, a Franck EP and a selection of the Brahms chorale preludes, Preston released an astonishing ten solo-organ recordings on Argo alone between 1963 and 1968; astonishing not least because of the large amount of preparation (on top of the day job) necessarily involved in the Messiaen works, as too Liszt’s ‘Ad nos’ Fantasia.

At last, in Preston, audiences had an organist who assumed the technique of a concert pianist. Meticulous in all matters, he took extraordinary care over registration, especially between phrases and in transitions: not least in the Liszt, which was recorded on the huge 1911 Forster & Andrews organ of Hull City Hall (rebuild by Compton, 1950). Indeed, Stephen Cleobury relates that Preston told him he had spent several hours registering just the closing crescendo at the end of Howells’s Rhapsody No. 3 (included on ZRG 528) for a recital at the Royal Festival Hall.

Simon Preston was born on 4 August 1938 at Bournemouth. As one of so many British musicians to have undergone their initial training in cathedral or college, he went to King’s College, Cambridge, where he was first a chorister and then (from 1958) organ scholar. In between, he had studied the organ at the Royal Academy of Music under C.H. Trevor, who edited numerous collections of organ miniatures and wrote the sleeve notes for several of Preston’s earlier records.

From 1962 (when he made his Royal Festival Hall debut) to 1967, and again from 1981 to 1987, Preston held posts at Westminster Abbey, initially as sub-organist, then as organist and master of the choristers. (He directed the music at the 1986 wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson.) Between those periods, from 1970 to 1980, he was organist of Christ Church, Oxford, and also university lecturer. In 1987 he relinquished his position at the Abbey to pursue what would be an immensely successful freelance career, principally as organist.

Always resourceful, Preston championed Messiaen’s organ works, both in recital and on disc, at a time when they were relatively unknown in England. Incredibly, he made his first Messiaen recording – of L’Ascension – at only a week’s notice. His own compositions from the 1960s, notably Alleluyas for organ, reflect Messiaen’s style; while the hair-raisingly virtuoso Toccata (1998) radically refashions as its point of departure the opening of ‘the’ Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor. During the same period, Preston also wrote a Missa brevis and other choral settings for the Edington Music Festival. As if all this activity were not enough, he gave numerous performances as choral conductor and solo harpsichordist.

Among Preston’s very first recordings was an abridged LP version, made by Argo of the 1958 King’s College Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. He recorded Handel’s organ concertos twice (once under Yehudi Menuhin’s direction for HMV, once under Trevor Pinnock’s for Deutsche Grammophon) and Bach’s complete organ works once (Deutsche Grammophon, 1988–2000). In terms of choral direction on records, Preston has been almost as active, in works ranging from Masses by Palestrina, Lassus and Haydn to music by Walton.

Few modern recording artists can equal Preston in terms of consistently favourable reviews. The Musical Times, on his 50th birthday, commented that ‘his work with the choirs of Christ Church, Oxford, and Westminster Abbey set standards of excellence which are regarded as points of reference.’ Preston’s Lassus impressed the Musical Quarterly for its ‘great beauty of tone and completely secure intonation’. And Gramophone, discussing Preston as virtuoso organist, marvelled at the way his ‘legs bounce over the pedals as if made of rubber while his feet maintain pinpoint accuracy’.

Still only 49 years old when he left Westminster Abbey, Simon Preston has been active since the late 1980s in Canada and the United States as well as his native land. In addition, he has toured Australia, East Asia and South Africa. Formal acknowledgement of Preston’s exceptional musicianship came in 2000, when he was appointed OBE in the Queen’s Millennium Honours List. Nine years later he was promoted to the rank of CBE.

R.J. Stove, Richard Abram