“His wonderfully colorful registrations,” Mr. 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.”
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,” Mr. 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 worshipers 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. Mr. 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.”
When Mr. 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.