Jane Parker-Smith obituary

Virtuoso exponent of Romantic organ music who championed neglected works from France and Belgium

The organist Jane Parker-Smith, who has died suddenly aged 70, possessed an exceptional technique, vibrant musicality and a vivacious stage presence. Writing in the Sunday Times, Paul Driver likened her to the mercurial Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich.

In 1975 she made a brilliant debut at the Royal Festival Hall, London, deputising at five days’ notice for the indisposed Fernando Germani. From there on, she enjoyed a stellar international career, popular with audiences for her wide-ranging sympathies and jaw-dropping virtuosity. The cornerstones of her solo programmes lay squarely in the virtuoso Romantic repertoire, most notably of French and Belgian composers such as Alexandre Guilmant, Charle-Marie Widor (several of his organ symphonies), César Franck and Joseph Jongen, as well as rarities that she championed, such as Jules Grison’s lively Toccata. Abroad, she appeared at venues including the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles; the Sejong Centre, Seoul; the Mariinsky Concert Hall, St Petersburg; and the ZK Matthews Great Hall, Pretoria.

For Jane, the solo recital lay at the centre of her performing career, but she appeared with leading orchestras in Britain and Europe, working with conductors including Sir Simon Rattle, Vernon Handley, Carl Davis, Matthias Bamert and Richard Hickox, whether in popular works such as Saint-Saens’ Third Symphony (which she recorded with Serge Baudo) and less familiar fare such as Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante and Marco Enrico Bossi’s concerto – a real rarity at the time.

She was also a regular visitor to major music festivals in Britain – the Three Choirs, City of London and Bath – and abroad, including the Athens Organ festival, and the Festival Internazionale di Musica Organistica at Magadino, Switzerland. Between 1996 and 2015 she was a prominent solo performer for the conventions of the American Guild of Organists. She appeared frequently on radio and television programmes in Europe, especially for the BBC, in Germany and Switzerland.

Jane Parker-Smith rehearsing for the opening concert in the international organ series at the Southbank Centre, London, 2016. She had made her debut there in 1975

As a recording artist she first made her mark with popular, attractive works: her Favourite Organ Masterpieces album on Music for Pleasure (1973) ranged from Bach’s celebrated Toccata and Fugue in D minor to Widor’s Toccata, from the Organ Symphony No 5, and it sold well. That opened the way to duos with the trumpet virtuoso Maurice André on EMI (1978), including a transcription of the Albinoni Adagio, made famous and perhaps written by Remo Giazotto, highlighting the lyrical splendour of her playing. Shortly afterwards, Jane recorded for the Argo label an album of rare concertos by Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, CPE Bach, and Joseph and Michael Haydn.

But she also excelled in more demanding works, such as the wildly virtuosic Postlude (actually the penultimate movement) of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass in the recording by Rattle (1982). And on three volumes of Romantic and Virtuoso Works for Organ on the Avie label (2008-09) she made a wide array of less familiar music available, from the Toccata in D major by Marcel Lanquetuit onwards.

Born in Northampton, Jane was the daughter of Reginald Smith, a transport engineer, and his wife, Janet (nee Parker). Not long afterwards, the family, including her elder sister Susan, moved to Hampshire and Jane attended Barton Peveril grammar school in Eastleigh. In 1967, she entered the Royal College of Music in London, initially to study piano, cello and harpsichord, but she switched to the organ early on, much to the annoyance of her piano teacher, Kendall Taylor.

Her interest in the “king of instruments” had started in childhood, and as a teenager she would deputise for the organist at the local church of St John’s, Rownhams. However, it was only at the Royal College that she fell in love with the instrument. A brilliant student, she won a string of awards and scholarships, culminating in the Walford Davies award for organ performance, part of which included her London debut recital using the name Jane Parker-Smith, aged 20 and still a student, at Westminster Cathedral.

Her encounter with the then cathedral organist, Nicolas Kynaston, was formative: she studied with him as a postgraduate from 1971 and he remained a lifelong friend and mentor; indeed, Jane acknowledged him as the most important musical influence of her life. Her postgraduate studies included a spell in Paris with Jean Langlais, on a French government scholarship (1972-73). Langlais trained her hard, especially in the French Romantic repertoire.

I first met Jane in the late 1980s and found her, for all her love of fast cars and glamorous outfits, a remarkably grounded virtuoso, down-to-earth in attitude with an easy manner with her fans. Long before it became customary, she was not averse to manning an impromptu record or CD stall at her recitals to generate sales.

In 1996 she married John Gadney, becoming stepmother to his daughter, Alice, and sons, Oliver and Max. John died in 2012. She is survived by her stepchildren and by Susan.

• Jane Parker-Smith (Jane Caroline Rebecca Smith), organist, born 20 May 1950; died 24 June 2020


Guy Rickards

The GuardianTramp

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