Organist and choirmaster who played all of Bach's organ music in mammoth Edinburgh Festival sessions

Born: November 22, 1930;

Died: March 3, 2019

THE organist Peter Hurford, who had died aged 88, was widely acclaimed as one of the world’s leading organists and scholars. He established an international reputation for his playing and advice regarding the creation of new organs in churches and concert halls.

Hurford was also in the forefront of pioneering a more contemporary approach to the playing of J S Bach and introduced and popularised baroque music to a new and enthusiastic public. His superb series for Decca of the complete organ works of Bach was acclaimed.

He was a well-known recitalist and was featured at the 50th Edinburgh Festival in 1997 when he undertook the marathon task of playing virtually all the organ music of Bach. He enthralled audiences at his 15 concerts in Greyfriars Kirk with the musicality of his playing and the intensity of his interpretations.

Hurford loved his visit to the festival and commented in an interview, “My Who's Who entry lists my hobbies as `walking, wine and silence'. One of the great attractions of Edinburgh is access to silence - the silence of the Pentland Hills, for example. Here at Greyfriars, with its kirkyard - you wouldn't know you were in the middle of a city."

In Conrad Wilson’s distinguished publication, Notes on Bach, he recalls those festival concerts with particular pleasure. “This vast body of work proved not to be a daunting experience but exhilarating, enthralling sometimes even sensuous,” he wrote.

In 1984 Hurford gave a memorable recital in Pollokshields Church of Scotland to celebrate the rebuilding of the fine organ in the church.

Peter John Hurford was born, appropriately, on St Cecila’s Day, in Minehead, Somerset. He attended Blundell’s School in Devon then read music and law at Jesus College, Cambridge. After gaining degrees in both subjects, he attended the Royal College of Music in London and then studied baroque music at Saint Eustache in Paris under the blind organist André Marchal.

Hurford did his national service with the Royal Signals and in 1956 was appointed director of music at Holy Trinity, Leamington Spa. In 1958 he moved to St Albans Abbey where he served as organist and director of music for 20 years. It was an appointment to which he brought a very special renown and scholarship.

His eminence as a musician led to the success of the International Organ Festival which he began in 1963 in the famous abbey. By dint of his reputation he was able to attract organists and scholars to gather to hear and discuss performances and exchange experiences. The festival gained much international reputation when leading virtuosi such as Gillian Weir won the coveted competition.

Always wanting to preserve the fun in music-making, Hurford initiated the Choir Camp at Luccombe and in 1958 he brought together many parish church choirs from around the St Albans area for the first Biennial Diocesan Choirs’ Festival.

Hurford was a world authority on early music, how it should be played and the technical manner of its production. He insisted in creating the correct balance between instruments and voices thus ensuring there was a genuine period feel to the music. Bach was his principal love but he enjoyed playing the organ music of composers such as Couperin, Pachelbel and Mozart. While he was a stickler for following the composer’s wishes, Hurford had a glorious ability, in performance, to improvise which made every performance different and exciting.

His recordings of Bach are now considered legendary and his live organ recordings have been hailed by colleagues as milestones in baroque music. He also recorded the Handel organ concerti with the Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra, the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony and Poulenc’s Organ Concerto with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under Charles Dutoit. His Bach recordings won Gramophone’s Instrumental Award in 1979.

In 1978 he left St Albans so he could concentrate on his career as a soloist. He also taught widely – especially in the USA and wrote Making Music on the Organ in 1988. He composed much liturgical music: his famous anthem, Litany for the Holy Spirit, is widely performed and was sung at Old St Paul’s Scottish Episcopal Church in Edinburgh two years ago.

Hurford was much respected as a musician and by generations of organ scholars. He was a warm, articulate and witty man who was generous with his time and knowledge and was much revered by choirs and musicians.

In 1984 Hurford, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for some years, was awarded the OBE. He was appointed an honorary fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, and was a past president of the Royal College Organists.

In 1955 he married Patricia Matthews. She predeceased him and Hurford is survived by their two sons Michael and Richard and daughter Heather and nine grandchildren.