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Grand Variety - reviews

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Impressions of Richard Hills’ new CD

‘Grand Variety’

Recorded on the Southampton Guildhall 1937 Compton

by Carlo Curley

The preview copy of this new release has provided this writer with unalloyed delight. Seldom am I asked to share my impressions of a colleague’s efforts in print but, on this occasion the task has proved exceedingly simple. A critic per se unquestionably must criticize something! But as intensely as I have listened, not the slightest infelicity has been revealed and now I must exert every good effort to bridle my enthusiasm to grant the reader/listener a sense of believability in my impressions in an era where gratuitous, silly overstatement seems boringly the norm, even demanded.

Richard’s sense of sheer uplifting inventiveness coupled with a startling élan overall makes this disc a must-possess for every discerning lover of fine organ performance ‘on both sides of the aisle’ – popular and classical - as it were. It is certainly a shimmering gift I will be proud to present to friends without hesitation. My principal American organ teacher, Virgil Fox would have passionately adored this hugely gifted English player and the inspirational medium! Talk about ‘Big Strings Tradition’ - Wow!

Firstly, the instrument: I have known this grandest-of-all, magnum opus Compton for ages. I visited the Guildhall in the early 1970s with another teacher and long-time friend, Dr. (later Sir) George Thalben-Ball, who served as Advisor to the project and who not only was a major supporter of John Compton’s work but confided that “Willis really wanted the job but, Carlo, they could be jolly difficult, bless them, and would never consider building a multi-purpose instrument”. Ahhhh, the English bear ownership of such an exquisitely descriptive language and some even posses the power to use it.

This dear Grand Organ has survived intact and unaltered into the 21st Century due to three things: 1) It was spared destruction by Hr. Hitler in WW2, it and the venue continuing to soar Phoenix-like in spite of the majority of Southampton being virtually obliterated – one wonders in pure fantasy if der Führer wasn’t a great organ fan and ordered the Guildhall, like Blackpool to be spared destruction – in fact bombs did fall nearby lifting the Guildhall’s roof slightly from without, but not nearly as capably as the Herculean Compton does from within(!); 2) Given the organ’s action and overall tonal concept it bordered on impossible for influence by the ‘classic movement’ of the Orgelbewegung which so sadly led to the almost criminal annihilation of so many romantic instruments over the impending years that truly did not deserve to perish; 3) And, lastly, to the well-known civic affection for large Town Hall instruments and here I must tread carefully as it is the Guildhall’s masters one does not wish to offend even remotely. After all, they were responsible for its commissioning, bless them and bear ownership of it to this day and are keen as mustard to have the organ enjoy a halcyon existence once more. Shall we leave it at this: Over the years, the organ became less-loved, musical tastes ventured in a myriad of other directions and therefore maintenance budgets were slashed and blissful ignorance reigned Lord & Master. Howls of penury were proffered for ages. But in spite of all these things coupled with a gentle dose of attrition this elegant Compton soldiered on, head held high, giving special meaning to initial bespoke ‘Empire’ workmanship and overall adoration by an exceptionally gifted builder for his craft.

I join many of my dearest colleagues, past and present in considering John Compton to have been one of the world’s finest organ builders and this job serves as a titillating testament to his astounding prowess. This is one of the world’s best kept ‘organic’ secrets and well deserves a far wider exposure, as well as ground-up restoration. Surely some leading organ advisor authority considers this job intensely worthy of Lottery funding, for example. Certainly less deserving projects have been commendably accommodated by this cash trough. Come on, folks. Only a few deep pockets are required, and some bright spark might well think to provide a sinking fund to insure this treasure’s future. And what a satisfying, glorious return on funds invested for everyone concerned…

Secondly and of equal importance: Richard’s performance: I cannot recall repertoire being more perfectly matched to a builder’s intentions. I was so pleased to see dear Thalben-Ball’s stirring Elegy used quite appropriately as the finale, most movingly played. Richard’s efforts are noble, intensely colorful, memorably majestic, piquant, thrilling, cheeky, magically musical and technically superb throughout making full use of a wealth of inspired registrations (the other-worldly Compton Melotone, percussions, sensuous strings, hair-raising chorus and crowning fanfare reeds, astoundingly satisfying pedal registers, majestic diapasons, clarity throughout, mellifluous flutes, charming, even sensuous imitative reed registers, etc). This is a most splendid player who magically weaves 100% conviction into every piece he offers.

All of these aforementioned sonic treasures controlled from two massive-yet-stylish consoles speak from lofty chambers situated above the stage projecting unimpeded into the great space. No cutting corners here, in any form or fashion! Talk about a text-book organ installation… A brilliantly unique instrument, an international treasure - one that cries out be maintained to the highest standard at all costs.

Bravo to Richard Hills for his outstanding virtuosic contribution, masterfully recorded and presented which has ‘blown my socks clean off’ and touched my heart-strings in equal measure and to those who champion this instrument’s raison d'etre and are fighting so hard to make it better known. I can’t begin to possibly offer my full support to a more worthy cause. Hurrah! Blessings! Carry on!


Silver Street Music was very sorry indeed to learn of the death of Carlo Curley in August 2012. We were absolutely delighted at his kindness in writing this review and for his glowing comments back in February and it seems hard to imagine that his huge personality and talents are no longer with us. Our deepest sympathies to his friends and family.

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