Mighty Voice of Jupiter pipes up at Royal Albert Hall

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 July, 2004, 12:00am

What has 9,990 pipes and is 138 years old? No, it's not a stately home, or a castle or an elephant. It's an organ. The Voice of Jupiter, as this instrument has become popularly known, is the massive organ in London's Royal Albert Hall that last week celebrated its refurbishment with two weekend concerts featuring renowned organists.

The organ, built in 1863, acquired its soubriquet when a reviewer wrote in 1965: 'The Great Organ sounded like the voice of Jupiter. The audience was left breathless and tingling. It is for these moments of ecstasy that the Royal Albert Hall continues to exist.'

Last weekend's concerts reintroduced the glories of the Jupiter to a new audience and a new generation.

Children are fascinated by all things large, weird and wonderful. The Voice of Jupiter falls into this category of fascinating giants, and Sunday afternoon's concert, 'Pipe Up at the Royal Albert Hall', was a magical introduction for the many young people in the audience. The programme included the world premiere of a new work by Howard Goodall, Jason and the Argonauts. The piece is scored for organ, percussion and narrator, and features a text by Irish poet Theo Dorgan.

The spellbinding originality of the piece was in using the 'voices' of the organ to help tell the tale - 1,000 organ pipes thundering out the roar of the enraged Minotaur at the centre of the Labyrinth. Children were sitting on the edges of their seats with eyes as wide as saucers - a welcome sight in a concert hall. Even teenagers were momentarily jolted out of their worldly indifference by the thundering voices of this musical deity.

This narrative sorcery was followed by a zoological fantasy: Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals, the mighty organ painting the elephant in massy, lumbering tones and then just as adroitly painting the serene swan.

The sight of Thomas Trotter, a solitary human sitting at the keyboard of this vast spiky stegosaurus of an instrument won't be quickly forgotten by those at the concert. Nick Davies conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with an infectious enthusiasm.

Saturday's inaugural concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Richard Hickox, featured three top organists - David Briggs, John Scott and Thomas Trotter - in works by Bach, Poulenc, Liszt, Barber and Copland. This concert splendidly showcased both a range of different playing styles and an eclectic mix of musical periods that showed the versatile power and richness of expression of the refurbished organ.

An early use of the organ was to drown out noisy protests by suffragettes, but over the years damage to the timber and to the leather-work of the bellows started stealing the organ's thunder. Restoration began in 2001 and cost GBP1.7 million (HK$24.2 million). Last weekend's concerts showed this has been money well spent.