Fulcher in Great music at St Paul’s lunchtime

Ciacona in E minor, BuxWV 160 (Buxtehude); Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue (Healey Willan); Chaconne (Holst); Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582 (Bach)

Michael Fulcher (organ)

Cathedral of St Paul, Friday 6 November 2009

The second to last in the approximately monthly series of 12.45pm recitals was by the cathedral’s director of music, Michael Fulcher.

In his notes to the programme he remarked how his idea to focus on the passacaglia (and its cousin the chaconne) had awakened him to its scope, which he thinks can easily fill four full programmes. There will be more next year.

Nothing could better illustrate the depth and sheer intellectual potential of the organ repertoire than the many works over the centuries that have been built on the renaissance courtly dance in slow triple rhythm. It has not been confined to the organ of course; The most famous of all chaconnes is no doubt that in Bach’s D minor solo violin partita; and then there’s the great finale of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony.

A good recital seeks to awaken its listeners to music that they probably do not know, and this succeeded magnificently. Buxtehude specialists would have known his Ciaconna, a most engaging piece in which the undulating chaconne theme opens on both manuals and pedals. Though its performance, and that of the Bach later, on a large modern organ which emphasizes the weight and diapason opulence, would have surprised the composer, the music seemed to thrive in that climate; and it was further enriched in the cathedral’s long reverberation.

The second piece was new to me, its composer no more than a name. Healey Willan lived from 1880 till 1968, born in England but lived in Canada from the age of 33; his Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue was written for a Toronto organ in 1916. Its three sections are distinct, unlike Bach’s piece that followed, where the passacaglia rather merges into the fugue. The Introduction announced the character of the whole work, serious and noble, enlivened by varied registrations, the building of climaxes through the increasing complexity of interesting harmonies and the opening and closing of the swell box.

The fugue, at its start, served to clarify the dense emotional atmosphere that the Passacaglia had created; Fulcher’s dramatic skill then led the music towards a powerful final climax: his note had warned us to expect an exhilarating piece and that quality was vividly present in the fugue’s conclusion.

Before the Bach, Fulcher played an arrangement of the Chaconne from Holst’s First Suite for Military Band, so well disguised that its original as open air band music would hardly have been guessed. Spacious, grand, with its effective use of the slow triple time.

Fulcher invested Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue, BWV 582, with its elaborate structure and variety of rhythms and colourings, with such a sense of being of today that it might have been the most modern piece in the programme. Its emphatic pedal theme can start to be monotonous in the hands (and feet) of a lesser player, but here the combination of a colourful organ and an organist able to exploit varied registrations, embroidered with sensitive rhythmic patterns made it a splendid finale to the concert, which should induce the audience to watch out for further organ recitals from Fulcher – and indeed the several other excellent organists in the city.  


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