Rewarding recital of 20th century British organ music Friday at St Paul’s

Great Music 2011:  Music by William Mathias, Britten, MacMillan, Lennox
Berkeley, Kenneth Leighton and Howells

Richard Apperley (organ)

Cathedral of St Paul

Friday 15 July, 12.45pm

A programme of entirely British organ music comes as a bit of a surprise for it is normal to think of the repertoire as dominated by Germany and France.

The second surprise was how attractive and interesting the recital was, especially as it was entirely from the 20th century (though coming from one with no special familiarity with a great deal of British organ music of earlier periods, I suppose that might be a provocative remark).

That was due as much to the organist Richard Apperley who is assistant organist at the cathedral and whose familiarity with and command of this organ must be near unparalleled.

William Mathias’s Processional had already begun when I arrived and I was sorry not to hear it all; it was enlivened by the use of bright, sparkling stops, some with a tight reed quality; the impact was fresh, inoffensively diatonic, non-portentous, welcoming, speaking of a lively musical mind that was concerned to arrest and entertain the listener, and the last few bars did that with its surprising shift of tone. The skill and buoyancy of Apperley’s playing persuaded my organ-diffident companion that he should stay the course.

I’m not familiar with Britten’s organ music at all; yet, as with almost everything that composer wrote, this impressed. However, my unfamiliarity felt forgiven after I’d searched in the usual places to find out about this piece. An article in the Musical Times in 2004 remarks that Britten’s only organ piece known till recently was the Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria, which Apperley played later. But then in 2003 three pieces were discovered, two of them incidental music for a 1938 play by Max Catto called They Walk Alone which ran for six months in the West End and later on Broadway. Britten had taken the score with him to New York in 1939 and left it there when he and Pears returned to Britain in 1942. It and other organ pieces were presumably left in the hands of Elizabeth Mayer, the German émigré in New York who maintained an artistic salon for émigré writers and with whom Britten and Pears stayed. Her collection was given after the war to the Britten-Pears Library at Aldeburgh, and evidently not thoroughly examined. The author of the Musical Times article, Timothy Bond, prompted the search for it and helped get the pieces published.

The Prelude to They walk alone had a sombre character, meditative and somehow comforting though without the slightest hint of self-reflection. The opening and closing of the swell box seemed to lend it a feeling of humanity, of breathing, or of rising and falling level of attention. The organist managed to suggest that he was playing a piece written by a real organist who knew how to draw idiomatic and intriguing sounds from the instrument; just as Apperley did.

The second piece by Britten, Prelude and Fugue on theme of Vittoria (Victoria in English, the theme from the motet Ecce Sacerdos Magnus) was rather more robust, at least in the Prelude which was a vigorous call to attention after which the fugue began quietly and became, not only more and more complex, as fugues do, but more and more extrovert and arresting, and complex. I have to confess to an obscure feeling of dislike for Britten in an abstract sense, on account of the person perhaps, but invariably, once the music starts, I am fascinated, drawn in, and it was the case here.

I’m not aware that Britten was anything of an organist, though a brilliant pianist, but this piece suggested an ear keenly attuned to the organ’s capacities, sensitively exploited by the player here.

There were also two pieces from Scottish composer James MacMillan: again, I had not encountered him as an organ composer. The first piece was entitled White Note Paraphrase. My ears did not allow me to believe that the piece was confined to playing the white notes. A remotely suggested, uneasy Scottish motif existed in an entirely different sphere from the accompanying series of single notes from an attenuated stop. As with all MacMillan’s music, there was a strong feeling of individuality and musical sense-of-purpose MacMillan’s second piece was Gaudeamus in loci pace, which again made use of two very distinct lines of thought and sound; a murmuring bass line below a sequence of rising silvery notes which at the end simply descended into silence. Both pieces prompted me to explore this area of a composer whose political attitudes I am responsive to.

Hyperion’s website tells me that Gaudeamus was written in 1998 to celebrate the golden jubilee of the re-foundation of a Benedictine Abbey in the diocese of Aberdeen; that it’s based on a plainchant melody sung as the introit on the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Lennox Berkeley was ten years older than Britten (incidentally, he was William Mathias’s teacher at the Royal Academy of Music). His Aria is one of three pieces for organ of 1966-68, entirely approachable, quietly lyrical, with what’s been described as a ‘bitter-sweet tunefulness’.

The least familiar name to me was Kenneth Leighton’s; raised in Yorkshire, he spent most of his life teaching in Edinburgh. His Paean was not of a particularly strident or clamorous kind, opening with bright tone clusters (in an attractive vein) it seemed to be designed in some complexity, for a great cathedral lit with gorgeous, kaleidoscopic stained glass. It struck me as a particularly interesting piece, individual in character and of genuine musical inspiration that this performance did full justice to.

The recital ended with the oldest music, the First Rhapsody by Herbert Howells in 1915, opening with a chorale-like theme in a slow crescendo, hinting at the presence of a grand melody which failed to materialise, eventually being somewhat smothered in dense harmonies, perhaps suggesting the impact of the First World War on the composer . But things clarify and lighten and the work ends in a calm, meditative mood, rather beautifully, and an awareness of the circumstances of its composition seemed, in hindsight, to give it more meaning.

So this was a recital that introduced me to an area of music with which I was largely unfamiliar but which held my attention and at many stages delighted me; I’m sure that a great deal of that impact was on account of the skill and musical taste of Richard Apperley.

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