Procol Harum

the Pale

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Celebrate Walpurgis!

Joan May (California)

In appreciation of Repent Walpurgis

I've already published my admiration of this Matthew Fisher masterpiece in a 12/96 letter to Goldmine Magazine, entitled (by the editor) Supernatural Harum, an opportunity given to me by whoever had the good taste to include Repent Walpurgis in the Supernatural Fairy Tales ProgRock Boxed Set, and by the Goldmine columnist – musician and PH expert Michael Dawson – who left plenty of room in his review of that Boxed Set for an extensive RW amendment. Supernatural Harum was a celebration of all the incredible musicianship in the piece, from MF's beautiful composition and trademark cathedral Hammond, to Robin Trower's wild edgy "crazed electrified 'cello" sound and what may be two of his finest solos ever, to BJ Wilson's unique and exciting drumming, especially at the end. The following are some thoughts I didn't include in my letter:

Although RW has been a staple of 90s PH tours, and sound-engineering technology is so much better now than it was in 1967, I think the version on Procol's First Album is still unsurpassed. I'm familiar with three RW recordings in the 90s: Canadian TV / Edmonton 92 (MF wasn't there, and of course neither was BJW, so this was more Gary Brooker & friends than PH), the CD / EP with live RW and ASD plus the original AWSoP, and the Symphonic Procol Harum CD, with Maestro Nicholas Dodd's London Symphony and the incomparable RT thankfully back on guitar. In my opinion, the first two performances were severely hampered by Geoff Whitehorn's Van Halen-esque playing, the Edmonton lacked the organist / composer's magic touch, and all three renditions suffered from Mark Brzezicki's machine-like drumming. Though I prefer PH music sans orchestration or other embellishments, I think the Symphonic RW was by far the best of the three, owing to MF on that church organ and RT's beautiful – if a bit formal-sounding – guitar solos. I especially loved MF's opening organ lines and the part near the end where the orchestra toned down and Matthew and Robin combined to play – all too briefly – some lovely new contrapuntal melodies.

That passage reminded me of the great musical affinity between MF and RT, and I hope they'll play together again in the future – in person, not by 'phoning their parts in' as they did on The Prodigal Stranger.

I've recently realized that I'd like RW even more without the excerpt from that all-too-familiar Bach piano prelude. Such a direct Bach quote in a PH piece lends credence to the tragically common misconception that the organ melody of AWSoP is also note-for-note Bach rather than Matthew Fisher's original composition. On a related topic – I was shocked to learn from Antonio Costa Barbι's recent interview that even Nicholas Dodd is unaware of whose AWSoP creation his orchestra has been playing!! I hope Maestro Dodd – and countless others – will become better informed about that soon. The Bach prelude really adds no excitement to RW anyway; rather it's kind of dull and predictable, the first half of each measure being identical to the second. It does become more musically interesting when combined with Gounod's vocal melody as the Bach / Gounod Ave Maria, and when listening to RW and no-one except my understanding husband is around, I enjoy singing Gounod's tune to the Bach, to break the monotony of that section. I've never known nor cared about Gounod's lyrics, so in preference to just humming the thing, I've discovered that Matthew Fisher's name, sung four times, scans in there quite nicely. :-) I would like to hear it performed by someone who can actually sing, however.

I think the 90s PH is certainly capable of performing a RW that would rival the original, with the added advantage of superior sound reproduction. Graham Broad could do a credible job of emulating BJ's drum parts, and RT should be the guitarist, of course, though he might want to find himself some funky old equipment like he used on Procol's First to help lead him closer to the edge of his early style of playing. I like to imagine such a PH line-up performing Repent Walpurgis in a huge concert hall with perfect acoustics, being recorded by superb sound-engineers, in front of an audience of thousands of vocally-adept fans who remain as quiet as church-mice until the piano interlude begins and they suddenly all rise up to deliver a loud and heavenly rendition of the Ave MF Maria, bursting into cheers and applause as Bach's music ends and Fisher's resumes. Now That's One Choir I'd Love to Hear with Procol Harum!

Joan May April 1998  

More Walpurgis revels here

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