Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra is determined not to have one of the city's greatest musical assets languish.

Its Thursday concert features the refurbished Town Hall organ as star of the evening, with Alexandre Guilmant's 1878 First Symphony played by English organist Robert Costin.

The affable Costin spent two years in our country in the 1990s and, thanks to a number of CDs on Auckland's Atoll label, has garnered an international reputation. The organist looks to his New Zealand years, and posts held at Wellington's St Paul's Cathedral and Auckland's Holy Trinity Cathedral, with affection.

"I was out here six weeks after my graduation from Cambridge,'' he says. "It gave me opportunities I wouldn't have had so soon in Britain. Cambridge is a great place to be, musically, but it can be quite claustrophobic. There's so much tradition that sometimes you want to break away.''


There were also instrumental advantages. "The Wellington organ was bigger than the one back home and I could play French repertoire and let my hair down.''
Costin tried out the Auckland Town Hall organ last year, finding it "daunting, but an amazing luxury _ just so meaty and sonorous''. It sounds heaven-made for Guilmant who, with other French composers of his generation, was interested in exploring the full colouristic resources of the instrument. Costin recalls his time on the organ at Notre Dame Cathedral. "When French organists improvise they go for the jugular and it has an amazing, almost visual impact.'' Inevitably, I am reminded of Costin's brilliant 2007 Atoll recording of the Julius Reubke Sonata, paired with Liszt's fairly monumental Fantasia and Fugue on Ad nos, ad salutarem undam, instead of being "mixed in with lots of different repertoire''.

Costin compares the Reubke to Liszt's popular B minor Piano Sonata but finds it "frustrating that it doesn't have the audience that Liszt has. There are hundreds of recordings of the piano work, perhaps too many. It would be nice if there could be a few more of the Reubke.''

The Thursday APO concert coincides with the release of Costin's latest album, a collection of 18th century English organ music titled The Excellent Art of Voluntary.
Costin talks of "going back to my roots'' on the same 1708 Pembroke College organ he played during his studies at Cambridge. Purcell and Handel may be "the towering figures of their age'' but there is a wealth of worthy composers here from Christopher Gibbons and Matthew Locke to the relatively obscure William Walond, whose Cornet Voluntary has the vigour of Vivaldi in its Allegro.

Some may be surprised by the volatile, almost bluesy harmonies of a John Blow Voluntary or the fragile, breathy beauty of a similar work in the minor key by William Croft.
"This has very much been a project for me,'' Costin explains. "It is fascinating to build up a repertoire and put the music into some sort of historical context. I'd much rather do that than just pick all my favourite pieces and throw them together on CD. That's been done far too many times already.''