Monday, 12 April 2010

Richard Popplewell: Organ Concertos

Richard POPPLEWELL (1935- )
Organ Concerto No. 1 in D major (?)Organ Concerto No. 2 in F major (?) Elegy (1980)
Suite for Organ (1974) Jane Watts (organ) Ulster Orchestra/ Sir David Willcocks
Priory PRCD 874 DDD
I have only consciously heard one work by Richard Popplewell – the Suite for Organ written in 1974. I am not sure where I heard it, but think that it was possibly at an organ recital in Glasgow Episcopal Cathedral in the mid-nineteen seventies. I cannot recall my reaction to it; although listening to the work again it does seem to typify the organ sound of the time – spiky melodies, rhythmically sharp dissonances and a considerable nod to (neo) classical form. The work started out life as a ‘Sonata’, but after due consideration the publisher suggested that a Suite was more appropriate to the length of the work and the potential sales of the score. The work has three movements. The first is a ‘March’ which makes good use of the tuba stop. The second is a meditative ‘Intermezzo’ which has a haunting feel to it. The work ends with a fugue that is anything but cerebral.
The other recital piece is the Elegy (1980). This work was written in memory of Harold Darke, the one-time musical director of St Michael’s Cornhill. The first performance was given there by George Thalben-Ball. It is a deeply felt work that is a fitting and moving tribute to a great musician.
Both of these pieces are important contributions to the repertoire of 20th century organ music.

However, it is the two Organ Concertos that form the bulk of this disc. Two works that would seem to fly in the face of Popplewell’s perceived ‘serious’ style. Yet, as with Sir Malcolm Arnold, it is perhaps rather difficult to define what his style actually is, especially as there is very little of his music in the catalogue.
The composer suggests that the origin of the works was a concern that there were relatively few concertos for organ - more especially ones that have brass and woodwind in the orchestra. Popplewell mentions the concertos by Handel and John Stanley which only utilise a small group of players in the band. He recognises that the romantic works of Rheinberger and Guilmant are scored for full orchestra, but notes that Poulenc uses only timpani and strings. Strangely, there is no mention in the text of the superb examples by Percy Whitlock and Basil Harwood. Nor does he recall Malcolm Arnold’s fine essay in this medium. However, the point is well-made and gives a good raison d’être for these two works.

I do prefer the first concerto. The composer has written that he views this work as largely inspired by Walton or, as Edward Downes has described it, “supercharged Elgar.” Certainly, the opening allegro with its nods to the former composer’s Te Deum and Gloria, this promise has been fulfilled. This movement opens with a definite swing, before the well-scored fugue in the middle section leads to a positive conclusion. Elgar and Walton are a little less obvious in the andante – where Bach and Bartok would appear to be the influences. Yet, this is attractive, reflective music that is largely ‘warm and romantic.’ The final movement is a double fugue that exploits the organist’s technique to the utmost. The opening is somewhat subdued, but soon builds up to a cracking climax. However, there are some more relaxed moments – with a solo violin playing above a quiet accompaniment. However all this is blown away by the coda which includes a demanding excursion on the pedals.

The Second Concerto impresses me less. The opening of the first movement is based (supposedly) on the introduction to Rachmaninov’s great Second Piano Concerto. However, I guess that it just does not do for me. I find it all a bit stylistically confused. There are some attractive moments, but somehow this opening movement just does not work.
I do like the ‘scherzo’ which is billed as a ‘moto perpetuo': this is excellent stuff – especially the middle section with the strident brass parts.
The slow movement is also the quietest. It is scored for organ and strings and explores a more reflective and occasionally moving mood that lulls the listener before the crashing finale. The composer describes the finale as a happy set of variations based on the folk song ‘Dashing away with the smoothing iron.’ A variety of moods are explored including West Indian rhythms and nods to jazz. An interesting fugue leads to the ‘triumphant’ finale. However, I do wish he had invented a tune rather than use the one he did.

The problem I have with these two concertos are to do with consistency and genre. I have no problem with light music: neither do I struggle with ‘modern’ music. Yet somehow Popplewell’s concertos try to straddle both genres with the lighter element winning out. This is not a pastiche of Walton or Elgar, but neither is it of Eric Coates or Haydn Wood. Langlais, Dupré and Jongen are barely on the cards. The concertos do not seem to reflect the promise of the Elegy and the Suite.
Although the music is enjoyable, it does lack substance. Each concerto seems to me to be music in search of a style. I do concede that both these works would be popular at a Prom Concert and would get good applause: they will appeal to many organ enthusiasts. These concertos are well-written and are brilliantly played by Jane Watts. It is just the stylistic integrity that I struggle with.

The CD is well presented, although a little bit more detail in the analysis of the works may have been helpful. I was very surprised that the dates of composition and first performance of the two concertos was not given in the text. The booklet details the two fine organs used in this recording - the sound is terrific. For the record the concertos are played on the Mulholland Organ of 1861 in the Ulster Hall in Belfast; it was restored by N.P. Mander Ltd in 1976-78. Mander was also responsible for the organ in Rochester Cathedral: the large four manual instrument was commissioned in 1989. Full specifications are given in the liner notes.

The playing of all the works is absolutely first rate. Jane Watts, for whom the two concertos were composed, is a seriously impressive performer who is always in control of the music and the instrument.
Altogether a good CD to invest in: the Concertos are enjoyable in spite of my caveats above: the Suite and Elegy are essential listening.
With thanks to MusicWeb International

1 comment:

Janice Crowe said...

It's opportune you should mention the Mulholland Grand Organ in Belfast's Ulster Hall. Having been out of action for the last few years to allow for refurbishment to the Hall, we welcome the organ back into full operation on Tuesday 4 May with a celebratory concert featuring City of Belfast Organis Colm Carey and the Ulster Orchestra. Visit for more information.