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Simon Preston, Acclaimed Organist and Conductor, Dies at 83

Simon Preston performed at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., Nov. 20, 2011. Preston, an organist, conductor, and composer who was an instrumentalist of consummate, intelligent virtuosity, and a force in the early-music movement, died on May 13. He was 83.Christopher Capozziello/NYT

Simon Preston, an organist, conductor and composer who was an instrumentalist of consummate, intelligent virtuosity and a force in the early-music movement, died on May 13. He was 83.

Westminster Abbey, where Preston served as organist and director of the choir from 1981 to 1987, announced the death. The announcement did not say where he died or cite a cause.

Preston, who was admired as one of the most important English church musicians of his generation, was an archetypal product of a choral tradition that, with unstinting energy and an insatiable demand for high standards, he reinvigorated — and eventually moved beyond. His solo career took him to organ lofts across the world, and he recorded prolifically, including with the conductors Yehudi Menuhin in Handel, Seiji Ozawa in Poulenc and James Levine in Saint-Saëns.

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He took to the organ as if born for it. Determined to spend his life playing the instrument even as a child, he joined the hallowed choir of King’s College, Cambridge, at age 11 and became its organ scholar as an undergraduate in 1958. When the dashing and dynamic Preston took his first post at Westminster Abbey, in 1962, he was said to be the youngest organist at the royal church since Henry Purcell, three centuries earlier.

After a brief stint covering for Peter Hurford as master of the music at St. Albans Cathedral in 1968, Preston took charge of the choir at the Cathedral of Christ Church College, Oxford, in 1970; he also lectured at the university. He brought out a fervent, firm tone and an impressive agility in the Christ Church singers, just as he did in those he returned to at Westminster Abbey, where he directed the music for the wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson in 1986.

Enjoying the time and concentration that studio conditions demanded, he made each group in turn a lively presence on record in the 1970s and ’80s, setting down acclaimed accounts — often with the period instrument specialists of the newly formed English Concert and Academy of Ancient Music — of composers from Haydn back to Handel and Purcell, and beyond to Lassus and Palestrina.

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The Musical Times commented in 1988 that “his work with the choirs of Christ Church, Oxford, and Westminster Abbey set standards of excellence which are regarded as points of reference.”

But Preston, who maintained a vigorous solo schedule throughout that period, came to chafe at the tedious routine of playing and conducting regular services. He decided to leave the abbey and to concentrate on his freelance career, one that came to include more than a decade spent working with the Deutsche Grammophon label on the organ works of Bach, in whose more grandly scaled compositions he excelled.

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“It was hard to imagine that anyone could have displayed the mighty Skinner instrument of St. Bartholomew’s Church, said to be the largest pipe organ in New York, more fully and effectively,” critic James R. Oestreich of The New York Times wrote in reviewing one of Preston’s many recitals in the city in 1992.

“His wonderfully colorful registrations,” Oestreich continued, “presented in wildly imaginative juxtapositions, made it seem on one hand as if he were intimately familiar with this instrument, but on the other as if he were sharing fresh and spontaneous discoveries of its rich possibilities with the audience.”

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Simon John Preston was born on Aug. 4, 1938, in Bournemouth, a town on the south coast of England. His inspiration to take up the organ was George Thalben-Ball, whom he heard when he was 5 on a shellac record of Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries.”

“I suppose you could say I came from a church family,” Preston, who started studying piano when he was old enough to read the psalter, and who later more than dabbled at the harpsichord, said in an interview with The Musical Times. “My uncle played the organ at the local church, my parents were both worshippers there, and my aunt taught in the local church school. We had a harmonium at home, and I used to fiddle around on that.”

While singing at King’s College, he trained under the organ scholar Hugh McLean, into whose prestigious former post he would move after studies at the Royal Academy of Music. He returned to King’s at an auspicious moment; the new organist and director of music, David Willcocks, was to markedly raise the stature of a choir now widely known for its Christmas broadcasts. Preston contributed an arrangement of the carol “I Saw Three Ships” that remains in festive use, at King’s and elsewhere.

“Already something individual is to be heard in the King’s recordings made at that time,” Gramophone magazine wrote in a profile in 1967, noting “the glow of Preston’s accompaniments to the choral works by Orlando Gibbons and in the Advent Carol Festival of 1961.”

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When Preston graduated to Westminster Abbey, he became little short of a phenomenon; he drew audiences unlike any of his elder colleagues, toured the United States and Canada in 1965, and made records for the Argo label that were characteristically both fastidious in their preparation and flamboyant in their execution.

“From any point of view it would be hard to find fault,” The Times of London wrote in 1965 of a release of Reubke and Reger. “Technical difficulties,” the review continued, “are smoothly dealt with, leaving the organist-listener in a glow of vicarious triumph.”

Preston was one of the more eager advocates of Messiaen in Britain, and he took Messiaen’s style as his model in his own early choral and instrumental compositions, including the solo “Alleluyas,” written in 1965.

Later, and in a more personal language that reflected deeper experience, he wrote a “Toccata” that toys with the legacy of Bach’s Toccata in D minor — arguably the most famous organ work of all, yet one, as he wrote in the score, that “repays a certain amount of scrutiny.” He also composed and performed music for the soundtrack of the 1984 film “Amadeus.”

Preston married Elizabeth Hays in 2012. She survives him. Further information on survivors was not immediately available.

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The radio host Bruce Duffie asked Preston, in a 1990 interview, if the itinerant life of an organ soloist was fun. It was, he said.

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“You suddenly find an instrument which is just the one that you want to play very much indeed. Even when it’s not the greatest instrument, there’s always something to be got from it; some new twists, some new sounds somewhere. Actually trying to work the very best out of a rather recalcitrant instrument is still fun.”

“It’s lonely, though,” he continued. “You’re on your own. You’re a solo performer. There’s nothing much around. You can be stuck in some cold cheerless church, or overheated cheerless church, and it can be grim from that point of view.

“But no, I think it’s fun.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.