The Schweitzer organ — named in honor of the theologian, physician, pacifist and organist — was made by famed Italian organ builder Fratelli Ruffatti, a commission that was somewhat controversial at the time within Atlanta’s large but deeply divided community of organists. With 79 ranks and a total of 4,413 pipes, the organ was opposed by an “early music” faction that favored a smaller and more “historically oriented” instrument for the 400-seat concert hall. Others expressed reservations based on their unhappiness with Ruffatti’s track record in Atlanta.
Despite the protests, Ruffatti was engaged for the task by Emilie Spivey, who was fully resolved to build an organ that met her vision for the instrument and the hall itself. In its 20 years, the organ has earned international accolades and has been played by a number of the world’s top organists.
Preston is regarded as a “living legend” in the world organ community, as much for his long association with Christ Church Oxford and Westminster Abbey as for his recordings, extensive tours and associations with famous orchestral conductors. His connections with Spivey Hall include his tenure as artistic director of the Calgary International Organ Festival, whose North American rounds the hall has twice hosted.
Preston opened the recital with what is surely the most famous of all organ works, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, by Johann Sebastian Bach. Although some scholars continue to debate its authenticity, in popular culture it is cemented to the name Bach. It’s also known from films thanks to its use in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and subsequently in Walt Disney’s “Fantasia.”
Felix Mendelssohn’s Allegro, Chorale and Fugue came next. It’s a virtuosic work that makes as many demands on the organist’s footwork as the hands. Mozart’s Fantasia in F minor concluded the program’s first half. It was written for a musical clock that contained a mechanical organ, one of several owned by Count Joseph Deym, and is one of three pieces written by Mozart for Deym’s clocks.
The entire second half of the recital was devoted to Fantasia and Fugue on the Chorale “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam” by Franz Liszt. The title is slightly misleading in that the piece comprises three sections — a Fantasia, an Adagio and a Fugue — which together loosely constitute a kind of single overarching sonata form that spans about a half hour.
Frankly, by the end of the Adagio the piece had begun to feel quite long in the tooth. Just in time, the concluding Fugue arrived to serve as a recapitulation of sorts, assuming that by this time one was still bothering to think of sonata form, and the piece ultimately ended with full organ blazing. The word “thunderous” would be an apt description for the conclusion, given the total volume and throbbing beats born of the “difference tones” generated by the instrument. Preston did not hold back in that regard.
Preston returned to the stage for an encore,“Transports de Joie” from Olivier Messiaen’s “L’ Ascension.” The original version of “L’Ascension” was a set of meditations for orchestra. In 1934 Messiaen completed a version for organ, replacing the third movement with the newly composed “Transport de Joie,” which become one of his most popular compositions. It also proved to be the most engaging and colorful work of the evening.
The occasion was further celebrated with birthday cake for the organ at intermission, and Preston generously autographed programs in the lobby after the concert for a line of admirers that noticeably included several recognizable local organists.