Icelandic composer Jón Leifs (1899–1968) made a big noise, literally, at one of this year’s BBC Promenade Concerts. How so? With a rare performance of his Organ Concerto Op. 7. Completed in 1930 after a 13-year gestation, the work was premièred in Germany in 1941 by the Berlin Philharmonic with Leifs himself as the soloist. It was not well received; only a handful of people in the audience were still in their seats by the end of the performance, and the work has struggled ever since to stay alive. Writing in The Guardian, Stephen Farr (the soloist at the Proms performance) wrote: “Many of Leifs’ orchestral works have established a place in the repertoire, but the neglect of the Organ Concerto remains curious, especially as there aren’t many good organ concertos to choose from.”
That thought got me reaching for the Naxos catalogue.
We will all have our own first choice when recalling popular organ concertos, but Poulenc’s Organ Concerto in G minor (8.554241) will surely be among the frontrunners. The piece was commissioned by Princesse Edmond de Polignac, whose aristocratic name veils an intriguing history of colourful lives and marriages of convenience that are rather inappropriate for this blog. Suffice to say that the princess’ full moniker was Winnaretta Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac, who was the 20th child (and there were several more to follow!) of the American inventor and entrepreneur Isaac Singer, the founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Winnareta spent most of her adult life in Paris and was an enthusiastic patron of the arts who rubbed shoulders with a star-studded list of musicians. She used her inherited wealth to commission a number of new works from young composers, including Poulenc’s Organ Concerto, which was first performed in 1939. Cast in eight short sections, here’s the opening of the second.
First performed in 1992 on the new organ in the National Concert Hall Dublin, Irish composer John Buckley’s Organ Concerto (8.223876) is probably less well-known, but no less exciting a piece, being scored for a large orchestra that includes triple woodwind and an array of percussion instruments. Here’s what the composer says about the concerto:
“In composing the work, one of my principal concerns was to maintain a balance between the orchestra and organ, which, in a sense, is like a second orchestra. Frequently, the development of the musical argument takes the form of a dialogue, with organ and orchestra in counterbalance to each other…The orchestral writing is often bravura in character, making the work a concerto for orchestra as much as for organ.” The opening of the work gives context to those statements.
There’s never a dull moment in the Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra (8.559740) by the American composer Stephen Paulus, who died last year. Musically buoyed by energetic rhythms, sweeping gestures and melodic ideas, plus wide changes in moods and textures, the piece also has its familiar moments including, for example, references to the hymn tune Come, come ye saints. The composer explains: “In the Mormon musical liturgy, it is known as All Is Well, and it is a tune that the great organist Alexander Schreiner used to improvise during Sunday-morning radio broadcasts from the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. Both my father and I listened to these broadcasts many, many times.” And, in the finale, Paulus weaves in the melody Waly, Waly, also known as The Water is Wide, played by soaring violins. Here it is.
Marcel Dupré (1886–1971) was internationally renowned in his lifetime for his skills both as an organist and a composer; he influenced many future leading lights of French organ music, including his pupils Jehan Alain and Olivier Messiaen, and was a supreme master of the art of extemporisation at the organ. He wrote a number of symphonic works featuring the instrument, including the Symphony in G minor for orchestra and organ, Op. 25 (8.553922), a concerto in all but name. Written in 1928 and published with a dedication to his friend Sir Henry Wood, it’s perhaps no surprise that the première was given at one of Wood’s Promenade concerts a couple of years later. If it has never featured again since that performance, maybe the current directors of the BBC Proms might bear it in mind. The last movement is in the form of a fugue, a reminder of Dupré’s incredible skills specifically as a contrapuntal improviser. Here’s the triumphant closing stretch.
We turn our back on big-boned grandeur for today’s final composer of organ concertos—Handel. Written and performed by him to fill intervals in oratorio performances, Handel relied on his memory and continued to perform them even after he had lost his sight. His Concerto No. 13 in F major, HWV 295, (8.550069) was first performed at a 1739 performance of Handel’s weighty oratorio Israel in Egypt, and one can’t imagine a better foil, with its subtitle The Cuckoo and the Nightingale and music like this.
We end with a quick coda by mentioning one prolific composer of organ music, Max Reger, who produced a piano concerto and a violin concerto but sadly never got round to writing a concerto for organ to keep them company. We can make up for that gap, however, by reminding organ buffs that Reger’s Complete Organ Works (8.501601) are now available as a boxed set which, while not constituting a concerto, certainly represents a concerted effort by the 10 outstanding performers across the 16 CDs.