|The Goldberg Variations
Johann Sebastian Bach
(1685 - 1750)
The CD is available from the usual FIE! suppliers (see the links page for details)
and from Sofa Sound.
Hugh Banton studied piano and organ under Percy Saunders at Wakefield Cathedral. He is probably best known as the organist of the group Van der Graaf Generator. His passions have always been music and electronics and while in the group he not only adapted numerous Hammond Organs but finally constructed his own customised organ from scratch.
Since the '80s he and his company, "The Organ Workshop", have designed and built digital church organs which are installed throughout the UK and the world.
This extraordinary recording is his first solo release. Never one to shirk a challenge, he plays the pinnacle of the Baroque keyboard repertoire on an instrument of his own making. An outstanding achievement of technical accomplishment from any standpoint.
|Hugh Banton's recording of J.S.Bach's Goldberg Variations throws up a number of questions. Do you prefer this repertoire played on the harpsichord, piano or the organ? Here, the latter is the case nevertheless there are more questions there to be asked. Should an old instrument (with tracker action) be favoured - ripe with the tell-tale clattery chattering of the mechanics - or a more modern instrument? Well, to the purist, Banton has committed a cardinal sin. He uses a purely electronic instrument - built by his own hand and with not a pipe in sight. Although one is spared a lot of the tell-tale background sounds of the traditional pipe organ, I don't feel that this detracts from the strengths of this recording. The playing is excellent, full of character and, although the sound is perhaps a little opaque, the variety and colour of the stops used gives the whole experience an undoubted charm and interest that many performers of this work fail to produce.
From the very opening theme, Hugh Banton uses the light and shade available to him from his instrument well. Just taking the fifth variation (a two part invention) as an example, the two voices used are wisely chosen and we are treated to a delicacy of sound which is never less than delightful. And the quality and personality of the playing is consistently good throughout the whole disc.
With good sleeve-notes, and information on the instrument, whether you are a purist or not, this release is thoroughly enjoyable. Alright, sometimes, the nature of the sound reminded me slightly of the computer-originated versions of the classics produced by Tomita in the past, but is that so bad?
The Goldberg Variations were written for double-manual Harpsichord, and this recording is a note-for-note arrangement by Hugh Banton for church organ - perhaps the definitive multi-keyboard instrument. The elemental nature of Bach's music invariably lends itself to transposition between similar instruments, and the transfer to organ has made it possible to enhance the clarity both of the dual elements in the serial Canons and of the frequent hand-over crossovers. Where appropriate the organ's bass pedals have taken over the lower parts, adding a new octave.
|The recording was made partly at Hugh's own research studio at The Organ Workshop and partly on 'Toccata', the Banton canal narrowboat, which has been customised to provide a unique capability for music recording. Real-time high resolution MIDI recordings of the two-manual & pedal performances of all 32 pieces were played through a digital organ module constructed specifically for this project, using the same hardware normally used in H.B.'s full-size church organs.
The organ module uses 'real-time computing' to generate the sounds and there are no samples of actual organ pipes. The open architecture of the system means that the organ's stops can be voiced individually to suit the requirements of each of the variations. A PC-based voicing programme, linked to the module, enables literally hundreds of details to be manipulated. Additionally there are algorithms for simulating the behaviour of the wind supply in a 'real' instrument.
The various departments of the organ were recorded in multi-track to facilitate maximum separation during the final stereo mastering. In this way it has been possible to enhance the contrapuntal detail in each of the pieces, and to give the recording as a whole a clarity which it is notoriously difficult to achieve with conventional recordings of pipe organs.
Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’
32 years later !
Former Van der Graaf Generator organist Hugh Banton does it all himself...
Tim Locke reviews Hugh Banton’s first solo album (on Hammill’s Fie! label)
Hugh Banton started in the organ-designing and building business in 1974 when Van der Graaf Generator were about to reform. He had previously reconstructed Hammond organs and had decided that the sound VdGG needed was simply not available from any commercially-available organ then on sale. So he constructed his own, which, in a ‘Melody Maker’ article of the time, he said was ‘capable of knocking down walls’!
|When VdGG split after ‘World Record’ in 1976, Hugh decided he would leave the performing side of the music biz and concentrate on manufacturing his own self-designed multi-keyboard and bass-pedal-equipped electronic Church organs. The company he started later, ‘The Organ Workshop’ has, since then, sold many of these wonderful instruments to Chuches in the UK and world-wide.|
|So, coming up to date, now we can hear what they sound like without even going to Church (unless you’re that way inclined). Hugh has chosen one of Bach’s most-recorded pieces (there are currently 76 versions of the GOLDBERG VARIATIONS available, including Hugh’s) to show both his own, and his instruments’, abilities to the full. And what a stunning oeuvre it is !
Here we have Johann Sebastian Bach’s 1741 harpsichord variations re-scored note-for-note for the double manual and bass pedal electronic organ designed and built by Hugh and his company played as they were originally intended (even if on a different instrument). Those familiar with ‘Sky’s version of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue (all rocked up and the original beauty lost), and who might be expecting a similar thing from a former Rock band organist will probably be surprised at the very classical nature of this recording. No drums, no guitars, no loss of the beauty of the original is intended or delivered here.
But for those whose musical taste has, over the years, extended beyond prog. rock (and even pomp. rock) to include the classical (but nonetheless rhythmic and compelling) work of Bach this album is a genuine feast.
I cannot fault Hugh Banton’s interpretation of the difficult counterpoint and harmonies included in this piece and I am convinced that no classical reviewer will either.
Fans of VdGG should, by listening to this album, be able to appreciate just what calibre of musicians Van der Graaf employed - this is wonderful stuff. Hugh learnt his organ playing skills at Wakefield Cathedral (in the north of England), put them to rock use in VdGG, mesmerised us all with the power of the electronic organ in a rock band, but has now returned to his roots.
Let’s hope that, with the collaboration with Peter Hammill’s cd label (FIE 9128 - in the shops now) perhaps we can look forward to Hugh playing one day again, even if only in a one-night stand, with Peter, David and Guy.
|The Organ Workshop||- Hugh's business website.|
|Hugh Banton page||- The Hugh Banton page at www.vandergraafgenerator.co.uk.|
|Interview with Hugh Banton||- Interview with Hugh in October 2001.|
|FIE! Records||- Peter Hammill's website.|
|FIE! Associates||- Peter Hammill's intro to the CD.|
|www.a30a.com||- a+30+a' - website devoted to The Goldberg Variations.|
|www.jsbach.org||- The J.S.Bach Homepage.|