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Gillian Weir and the English Chamber Orchestra deliver a dazzling collection of works for organ and orchestra, performed on the awesome 1995 organ by Marcussen & Son at Tonbridge School in Kent. Along with a superb performance of Poulenc’s Organ Concerto and Barber’s Toccata festiva, the album features the premiere recording of Pierre Petit's Concertino for organ, strings and percussion.
Born into a wealthy family, Poulenc enjoyed comfortable private means all his life and never had to work for a living. His natural talent was evident at an early age, and private lessons in piano and composition were sufficient to confirm his vocation as a composer; he was almost unique among successful French composers in having no formal conservatoire training—a deficiency which the more academically minded members of the musical establishment were never able to accept. The premiere of the ballet Les Biches in 1924 confirmed his reputation as the ‘naughty boy’ of French music; with its brittle sonorities, infectious high spirits and kitsch sentimentality, this effervescent score perfectly encapsulates the spirit of Paris in the Twenties. This early manner was summed up in the Concerto for two pianos of 1932, with its breathless fragments of melody tossed around between soloists and orchestra, magical gamelan effects and a pastiche Mozartian slow movement. The Organ Concerto—‘grave and austere, and showing a very new trend’—was Poulenc’s next major concert work. The flourishing liturgical organ tradition has always been one of the glories of French music, and from the mid-nineteenth century, the rigorous training of the Paris Conservatoire produced a succession of great organists and composers to serve the great churches and cathedrals. It therefore seems ironic that such a work should have been written by a French composer with no academic training who knew nothing about the organ.
However, there was also a flourishing secular organ culture in France. The organ-building firm of Cavaillé-Coll, who supplied instruments to churches throughout the country, also built many organs for private customers—the largest being a cathedral-size instrument for the fabulously wealthy Baron Albert de l’Espée. An eccentric aristocrat condemned to solitude by a morbid fear of germs, Baron Albert used to spend hours alone, immersed in the music of Wagner, in the cavernous organ-hall of the Château d’Ilbarritz on the rocky Atlantic coast near Biarritz. Smaller organs were installed in the fashionable salons of Paris, where Cavaillé-Coll’s most influential customers were Pauline Viardot (lover of Turgenev and patron of Berlioz, Massenet and Fauré) and the Princesse Edmond de Polignac (‘Winnie’ to her friends). Winnaretta Singer was an enthusiastic painter, pianist and organist with a passion for the arts. Heiress of the Singer sewing-machine fortune, she had left her native America and settled in France, where she married into the French aristocracy and devoted her life to artistic patronage; among those who benefitted from her friendship were Diaghilev, Fauré, Chabrier, Satie, Ravel, Falla, Igor Markevitch and Stravinsky. In these fashionable circles Poulenc was completely at home; it was the Princesse de Polignac who commissioned his Organ Concerto, and it was in her salon that it was played for the first time, on 16 December 1938, before an invited audience, with Maurice Duruflé at the organ and Nadia Boulanger conducting.
The original commission dated back to 1934, when the idea arose for a piece for organ and small orchestra, with an easy organ part which the Princess herself might play. Jean Françaix was the first composer to be approached, but he declined, so the commission was passed to Poulenc, who decided to accept. The ‘easy organ part’ was abandoned, for Poulenc had other ideas; the work that began to take shape in his mind was the most ambitious he had yet undertaken, and in the end he needed nearly four years to complete it. He had already written two keyboard concertos (for harpsichord and for two pianos), but they were essentially divertissements, with little concern for formal cohesion or emotional depth. The seven sections of the Organ Concerto embrace a much greater range of feeling and are welded together into a single whole; it all sounds quite spontaneous and natural, but Poulenc’s correspondence tells a different story, illuminating both the character of the music and the unexpected subtlety of its structure: ‘The concerto is almost completed. It has given me a lot of trouble, but I hope that such as it is, it is good, and that it will please you. It is not the amusing Poulenc of the concerto for two pianos, but more like a Poulenc en route for the cloister …’
(to Nadia Boulanger): ‘… tell the dear Princess that the concerto is not a myth, that I am ashamed [for the delay], but I will deliver it to her only when it is perfect, with that imperfect perfection which is my speciality.’
(to Igor Markevitch, apologizing for missing a concert in Paris): ‘I would have loved to come, but I am absorbed in work. My organ concerto which I am finishing has cost me many tears because I have built it from new materials. I was afraid that in two days of absence the cement would go dry …’
These letters date from the spring of 1936. Soon afterwards Poulenc was ‘absolutely stupefied’ by news of the death of a colleague, the young critic and composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, in a horrific car crash in Hungary. He made a pilgrimage to the ancient shrine of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour, where he underwent a kind of religious conversion; ‘Pondering on the fragility of our human spirit’ he later recalled, ‘the life of the spirit attracted me anew. Rocamadour led me back to the faith of my childhood.’ In future years religious music played an increasingly important part in his output, ranging from small choral works to the Stabat mater and Gloria for chorus and orchestra, and culminating in the opera Dialogues des Carmelites.
After two years in limbo, the ‘almost completed’ Organ Concerto seems to have been extensively revised; in its final form its musical language shares much in common with the religious works, and Poulenc later described it as being ‘on the fringe of my religious music’. So in 1938 he was still ‘working feverishly on the organ concerto’. ‘How hard it is’ he wrote, ‘to acquire skills when one is still trying to find one’s way. I keep seeing this in terms of a ladder, straight and difficult to climb. May God grant me a few more years of health, wisdom and application, so that I may try to leave behind me a little more than the little I have achieved so far. Believe me, the hours of doubt are dreadful …’
Finally he was able to write to the Princesse de Polignac: ‘Dear Princess, Yes, you are at last going to get your concerto, those words at last resounding for me with the joy of being at peace with my own conscience, and even more with my artistic conscience, for the work is now truly au point—never, since I began to write music, have I had so much trouble in finding my means of expression.’
Following the private performance in 1938, the first public performance of the concerto took place in June of the following year at the Salle Caveau in Paris, conducted by Roger Désormière. ‘How I missed you at the premiere of the concerto’ Poulenc wrote to Boulanger. ‘Désormière was perfectly competent, but you also had the heart and the lyricism, and God knows that’s what my music needs.’ For although it may tease us with pseudo-Baroquery in the opening bars, the Organ Concerto is at heart a romantic work (Duruflé recalled Poulenc leaping on to the stage at a rehearsal and instructing the violins to imagine they were playing the ‘Meditation’ from Massenet’s Thais). Poulenc freely admitted that he was ‘wildly eclectic’. ‘I certainly know’ he said, ‘that I am not among the musicians who have been harmonic innovators, like Stravinsky, Ravel or Debussy, but I think there is a place for new music which is happy to use other people’s chords’. The concerto has echoes of Bach, a bit of Mozart, a bit of Tchaikovsky; but all synthesized into vintage Poulenc.
The diversity of its musical language represents only one of the many apparent contradictions in this complex piece, which embraces both the church and the fairground, both irresistible joie de vivre and heart-breaking nostalgia. There are three fast sections; the first two, in minor keys, are full of directions such as giocoso, joyeux, très vif and très gai, while the last allegro is an uninhibited romp not far removed from the carefree world of Les Biches. But taking the work as a whole, there is more slow music than fast, and it is this that leaves the greater impression. The ‘religious’ element is partly a matter of context, organs being naturally associated with churches: ‘Properly speaking’ Poulenc said, ‘it is not a concerto da chiesa, but in limiting the orchestra to strings and timpani, I made performance in church possible’. But there is more to it than this. In this abstract work he was exploring a ‘new means of expression’, a musical vocabulary that would colour all his overtly sacred works, and sometimes his secular ones, for the rest of his life. The essence of the ‘religious’ Poulenc is distilled in the exquisite final pages, after the return of the initial Baroque flourish: transparent rocking phrases from the organ, followed by the hushed, intense processional of muted solo viola and plucked strings, on a bed of sensuous organ chords. Not long before her death in exile in England during the war, the Princesse de Polignac wrote to Poulenc to thank him for the happiness which his work had brought her; her memories of ‘her’ Organ Concerto were expressed in five simple words—‘its profound beauty haunts me’.
Poulenc often claimed that ‘my music is my portrait’ and the emotional ambivalence of the concerto faithfully reflects the two sides of his own personality: the ‘gentle, devout Poulenc’ and the ‘rakish bon viveur’. His faith was never a compartmentalized Sunday affair; he described it as ‘the faith of a simple country parson’. The most superficially irreverent movements of his Gloria were inspired by memories of cherubs sticking out their tongues in Italian frescoes and robed Benedictine monks playing football. After his death, his friend Benjamin Britten recalled this dual personality from a different perspective: ‘To the average Englishman, Francis Poulenc’s music may have appeared that of the typical French composer: witty, daring, sentimental, naughty. In fact Francis was very easily depressed, shockable, unsure and liable to panic … He put a high value on sincerity: he was himself too innocent to be insincere …’
Throughout the concerto, the texture and scoring for both organ and strings is wonderfully imaginative; the two forces sometimes converse with each other and sometimes accompany each other, but they both work together, complementing rather than opposing in the manner of the traditional concerto. Poulenc once said (over-modestly, as so often) that ‘symphonic music is not my forte, whereas with the human voice I am usually successful.’ In this concerto the lyrical impulse is always to the fore; a golden thread of melody runs through the whole work, providing an internal logic which draws the listener in, and compels the attention. And when the final orchestral whiplash arrives, there is no doubt that we have reached the end.
The concerto could so easily have been a heroic failure. Poulenc’s disarming sincerity explains much of its success, but there is also a great deal of compositional craft in this work, much of it subtly concealed; thematic cross-references abound between the different sections, some of them obvious, others not. It would be intrusive to analyse it too closely. Poulenc was never too keen on analysis of his music; he wanted it to sound instinctive, spontaneous and heartfelt. ‘You are truly good’ Stravinsky once wrote to him, ‘and that is what I find again and again in your music. May God protect you …’
Pierre Petit Concertino for organ, strings and percussion
Pierre Petit was best known to the wider musical world as music critic of Le Figaro, a position which he held with distinction for twenty-five years. His early musical studies at the Paris Conservatoire were complemented by a diploma in ancient Greek from the Sorbonne, and his diverse career reflected both his literary and his musical interests, including periods as professor of the History of Civilisation at the Conservatoire, as Director of I’Ecole de Musique Normale and as Director of Light Music and of Music Productions for French Radio. His extensive list of compositions includes concertos, operettas, ballets and chamber music for many different instrumental combinations.
The Concertino was written in 1958 for Pierre Cochereau, who gave the world premiere later that year in Australia. Petit studied with Nadia Boulanger, and like many of her pupils he resolutely maintained his musical independence; the Concertino is quintessentially French, but it speaks in an individual voice, with a clarity of texture and a lean, athletic energy which recalls the music of Albert Roussel—stylistically the most elusive of all twentieth-century French composers. The harmonic language ranges happily from modality (in the sprightly opening theme of the first movement) to polytonality; in some of the solo passagework in the first movement, and in the melodic line of the second, there are brief flirtations with twelve-tone patterns, while much of the racy finale is in an unapologetic C major. The first movement is characterized by pungent rhythm and moments of balletic insouciance—though a dramatic and dissonant organ cadenza ensures that we are not tempted to take it too lightly. Underpinned by an ominous two note ostinato on the drums, the atmospheric slow movement (très lent) is cool, spacious, elegant and minimal. The short finale overflows with typically French joie de vivre; another dramatic organ cadenza hints at more serious things, but they are sabotaged by the entry of a vibraphone and swept aside by a final page of irrepressible high spirits.
Samuel Barber Toccata festiva Op 36
The most recent of the three works on this recording is in many ways the most traditional. Samuel Barber was born into a prosperous middle-class family in a small town near Philadelphia in 1910. His musical talent was encouraged by his uncle and aunt (a successful composer and a celebrated opera singer) and he soon became the golden boy of American music; he was just twenty-five when a whole programme of his works was broadcast on national radio in 1935—a rare honour in those days. In later life Barber’s work attracted a good deal of criticism from more overtly nationalistic colleagues who found it too conservative, too unadventurous and too ‘European’, but with the passing of time, such stylistic criteria seem increasingly irrelevant. His music is now accepted on its own terms and he is firmly established in the American pantheon, as composer of one of the twentieth century’s finest romantic operas (Vanessa), finest violin concertos and finest piano sonatas, not to mention the Adagio for strings.
‘I write what I feel’ he wrote in 1971. ‘I’m not a self-conscious composer... it is said that I have no style at all, but that doesn’t matter. I just go on doing, as they say, my thing …’
Barber studied the organ as a child, and by the time he was twelve he was earning $100 a month as organist of a local church—though he was sacked before the year was out. He loved the organ music of J S Bach, but did not write anything for the instrument until he was approaching fifty, when two commissions resulted in the composition of two very different works: a modest set of solo variations on a Shape-Note Hymn (1958) and the virtuoso Toccata festiva for organ and orchestra (1960). The Toccata was commissioned by the enormously wealthy Philadelphia philanthropist Mary Curtis Bok Zimbalist for performance at the opening of the new organ which she had donated to the concert hall of the Philadelphia Academy of Music. Founder of the Curtis Institute of Music, where the young Barber had been one of the first pupils in 1924, she had been a generous patron and friend throughout his life, and it was natural that she should turn to him for a new work to dedicate the organ. Toccata festiva was first performed by Paul Callaway and the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy, on 30 September 1960, when it was greeted with ‘tumultuous applause’.
The title is in some ways misleading, for this is a substantial piece and its extrovert, celebratory moments are complemented by a good deal of lyrical, reflective music; the registration of the organ part is specified in detail and Barber conjures up some ravishing sonorities from both organ and orchestra in the softer passages. The main theme is announced by the trumpets after the opening unison flourish; before long it gives way to a contrasting second subject, an expressive chorale-like melody introduced by the strings. After some minutes of gentle reflection, the return of the opening flourish on the organ leads to an atmospheric and animated central section, which introduces some new material, builds up to a climax and culminates in an extended cadenza for organ pedals. The cadenza subsides into the depths of the pedalboard and the orchestra creeps in softly, initiating a reprise of earlier material which grows from meditative beginnings to a resounding conclusion.
David Gammie © 2001