Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Percy Fletcher: Choral and Organ Music

Percy Eastman Fletcher (1879-1932)
Festal Offertorium (1926) Prelude, Interlude and Postlude, Op.27 (1910) Grand Choeur Triomphale (1910) Andante con Moto (1927?) Festival Toccata (1915) Ronald Frost (organ)
The Passion of Christ (1922)
The St. Ann Singers/Ronald Frost, Philip Asher (organ)

I regularly play Percy Fletcher’s Parisian Sketch No. 2 ‘Bal Masque’ on the piano. It is the sort of piece that sounds impressive without really stressing my ‘Grade 6½’. Other music by this composer is often hauled out of the ‘piano stool’ and given an occasional airing.  However, it was not until I heard his Elgar-inspired Epic Symphony for brass band that I came to realise that there is more to this composer than a string of ‘light’ musical numbers ideally suited for the ‘end of the pier’.
A few years ago I came across Fletcher’s fine ‘Festival Toccata’ (which is included on this CD).  I heard it with an innocent ear, and admitted surprise at discovering who the composer was.  So it came as a minor revelation to discover that he had also contributed an important (if not major) cantata called The Passion of Christ. This is a work that transcends the usual church cantatas that used to fill the choir cupboards of so many churches. It is something else to perform in Holy Week other than John Stainer’s great (but hackneyed) The Crucifixion.  

A few brief notes on the composer may be of interest. Percy Eastman Fletcher was born on 12 December 1879 in Derby. His father was a professor of music and his mother was competent on the violin, piano and church organ.  Fletcher naturally learnt much from his parents, but then continued with a private musical education before moving to London. There he worked at a variety of theatres including the Savoy, Drury Lane and The Prince of Wales. For some seventeen years he was musical director at His Majesty’s Theatre in the Haymarket.  His works composed at this time included  completing the score of Frederic Norton’s Chu Chin Chow, writing a sequel called Cairo  and then The Good Old Days which ran at the Gaiety theatre during 1926.
Other compositions included a variety choral music including interesting sounding pieces such as The Walrus and the Carpenter, The Enchanted Island and The Shafts of Cupid. The library catalogues show a great deal of songs and ballads.  I have noted the Epic Symphony; however he did compose other pieces for that medium including Labour and Love.
It is a well-known aphorism that Percy Fletcher wrote more ‘light’ orchestral suites than the better-known Eric Coates. Certainly there seems to be plenty to explore amongst such titles as Six Cameos for a Costume Comedy, Rustic Revels, Sylvan Scenes, Woodland Pictures, Three Frivolities and At Gretna Green. I await an album of some of these pieces from an enterprising record company!
Percy Fletcher, although working on London, lived in Farnborough in Hampshire for many years. He died from of a cerebral haemorrhage in Holloway Sanatorium, Virginia Water on 10 September 1932.

The present CD includes music that is a million miles away from the ‘end of the pier.’  The opening ‘Festal Offertorium’ is a case in point. This is a big, gutsy piece that deserves to take its place alongside organ music by Harwood, Stanford and Harris as a powerful and confident example of the Edwardian style. I am not convinced that the dating of this piece is necessarily correct. I believe that it could be earlier than 1926 when it was published in an album of organ pieces. 
I loved the ‘Prelude, Interlude and Postlude’, Op.27 which dates from 1910. This is a truly gorgeous piece. It does seem to be easier to play than some of the big war horses presented on this CD. However, they are well written, with lovely tunes that are never dull.
The ‘Grand Choeur Triomphale’ is another great piece for using as a recessional. It is a rousing piece that fairly romps along; however there are considerable contrasts between the different sections of ‘choeur’ and these are well reflected in the organ registration.  It also dates from 1910.  The ‘Andante con Moto’ is really a hymn tune prelude: however the liner notes omits to say which tune! It is a lovely piece that is full of spine-tingling harmonies and beautiful voicings on the organ.
The last of the organ works is the relatively well-known ‘Festival Toccata’. This piece was published by Novello in an album called A Wedding Bouquet. Even I have had a go at this – however with very little success. It is an impressive piece that should take its place with the great ‘toccatas’ of the world. To my ear it is certainly as good as Gigout or Whitlock’s better-known examples. The work was composed in 1915 and was dedicated to Edwin Lemare – composer and sometime organist of Sheffield Parish Church (now the Cathedral)

The main event on this CD is the above mentioned cantata The Passion of Christ. This work dates from 1922. Philip Scowcroft, who writes the excellent liner notes, suggests that this ‘is one of those shortish sacred cantatas designed for smaller, perhaps less-experienced church choirs.’ I agree with him that there were hundreds of these products – I seem to recall something by a chap from Warrington called T. Mee Patison (The Miracles of Christ?) being sung at my Parish Church back in the nineteen seventies. It was a wee bit average.
The mood of Fletcher’s Passion is unbelievably far away from the ‘Bal Masque’ and the orchestral suites. There is nothing ‘light’ or ‘whimsical’ about this well-wrought, deeply felt exploration of Christ’s sufferings. The obvious referential marker is Sir Edward Elgar; however, I agree with Scowcroft when he warns us not to expect another Gerontious. The work is scored for chorus and organ with soprano, tenor and bass/baritone solos.  Fletcher has made use of congregational hymns; however he has followed Bach’s practice of using pre-existent tunes. They are heard here in Fletcher’s arrangement.
I enjoyed this Passion. There are many passages that are exquisitely beautiful. It is a deliberately introverted and hugely spiritual offering that deserves the occasional revival.

The CD has been well-produced with good sound quality reflecting the atmosphere of St. Ann’s Church in Manchester. The liner notes, as I have already mentioned are by Philip Scowcroft and are excellent – if a little short on information on the organ pieces. The words of the Passion are given in full. The booklet also includes a detailed profile of Ronald Frost B.Mus., FRCO., FRMCM., FRSCM., FGCM., FNMSM., FRSA and a shorter note about Philip Asher the current Pilling Organ Scholar at St. Ann’s Church. Asher plays the organ for the Passion.
Of importance to all organ enthusiasts is the essential history of the instrument, complete with fact and figures and the all important ‘spec’.  I have noted before the organ was not constructed by a Mancunian firm, but the Salfordian Glyn & Parker in 1730.  Such distinctions are important in ‘Lancashire.’ (I loathe to say Greater Manchester).
The St Ann’s Singers are largely drawn from the ranks of the regular church choir. They have devoted themselves to much music making in the Manchester area and have recently given performances of Fauré’s Requiem, and works by Elgar and Bairstow.
Finally, the booklet includes a useful discography of Dunelm's Organ Recordings.  Many are on the present instrument in St. Ann’s however Frost has also been active in other Lancastrian and Derbyshire churches. 

This is a CD that deserves success. It has bravely explored uncharted territory with The Passion of Christ: the organ pieces by Fletcher are not available together on any other CD.  I concede I have a soft spot for St Ann’s Church for a variety of personal and family reasons; however it is good to see this pillar of Manchester music-making contributing to the revival of one the lesser-known composers of the first half of the twentieth century.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

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