THE highlight of Wednesday’s organ recital at Salisbury Cathedral was a transcription of Elgar’s finest orchestral masterpiece, the Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma).

First performed in 1899, the work consists of a theme and 14 variations, each affectionately portraying a friend of the composer.

They include his wife Alice (CAE) and himself (EDU – his nickname was Edu). Lying behind all the variations is a hidden theme, the Enigma, which Elgar never disclosed and which has occupied musicologists ever since.

Suggestions have ranged widely, from Beethoven’s Pathétique to Pop goes the Weasel.

Peter Dyke, pictured, assistant organist at Hereford Cathedral, honoured the audience in Salisbury with a complete performance of his transcription of this mighty work.

It was clear from his introductory comments that he has a deep love and understanding of Elgar, and this transcription has been the result of meticulous research combined with total mastery of the resources of a large romantic organ.

Dyke indicated that he had not tried to copy Elgar’s orchestration exactly, but rather to capture the mood of each variation.

This he has certainly achieved, but he has also managed to include far more orchestral detail than one would think possible with just two hands and feet.

Obviously, some variations fit the organ better than others – the majestic breadth of Variation IX (Nimrod), the lovely cello melody of Variation XII, and the huge power of the final Variation XIV all worked wonderfully.

In some variations, especially the very fast short Variations IV and VII, the lack of orchestral percussion somewhat reduced the impact – even the thunderous pedal pipes at Salisbury cannot compete with an orchestral timpanist in full swing.

In every variation Dyke’s management of the organ’s resources was nothing short of amazing, especially his choice of so many varied reed solos. And how did he manage to decrescendo from full organ to almost nothing so smoothly and rapidly at the end of Nimrod? All the organ buffs were talking about this afterwards.

The recital also included an excellent account of the Bach’s St Anne Prelude and Fugue (with no prom-style gimmicks, thank goodness) and Alain’s beautiful Clement Jannequin variations.

The opening piece was a slightly banal Festal March by none other than George Robertson Sinclair – the energetic organist of Hereford and friend of Elgar. It was Sinclair’s bulldog Dan who fell into to the river Wye and inspired Variation XI of the Enigma.