I ought to begin this review with a confession. This particular recording has been on my “work in progress” pile for an unconscionably long time, which is unfair to the composer, the performer and the label. To them I offer my apologies but the truth is that it’s taken me a long time to feel that I have assimilated this massive and complex piece sufficiently well to be ready to write about it. There’s a second reason for this mea culpa, which is to urge collectors not to be daunted, as perhaps I was at first, by the sheer magnitude of Christus, nor by its complexities. Persevere. Work your way into the music and the rewards will be great. It may be helpful at first either to listen to movements separately or at least to have something of a pause between them.
Francis Pott is a composer who can work on a big canvass. That was proved by his substantial and very fine choral work, The Cloud of Unknowing (review). However, Christus, which is an earlier work, is even more substantial in scope. The work is on a vast scale. Indeed, I’m struggling to think of many works for solo organ that match it in scale and ambition. Two great cycles by Olivier Messiaen come to mind. Meditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité runs for about 80 minutes in performance while Livre du Saint Sacrement takes nearly two hours. However, Pott’s work is, in at least one sense, even more demanding on the performer and on listeners for he divides Christus into just five movements, two of which run for over half an hour, whereas the aforementioned Messiaen cycles are divided into much shorter movements – respectively into nine and eighteen.
A little surprisingly, this isn’t the work’s first recording. The world première was given by Ian Simcock on the organ of Westminster Cathedral in April 1991. That performance was issued by Priory Records but I believe it is no longer available. This Signum release is also a recording of a live performance, given on an unspecified date in 1997.
In the score, which I believe is published as no less than three separate volumes, each of the five movements is headed up by superscriptions. These include some lines by Thomas Traherne and verses from scripture (Movement I); verses by Thomas Merton (II); a poem by Charles Causley and some lines by Howard Mumford Jones (III); lines by St John of the Cross and Dylan Thomas (IV); and a verse from the prophet Joel (V). At the end of the score Edwin Muir’s poem The Transfigured is appended. Unfortunately these literary inspirations are not reproduced in the comprehensive booklet but they can be accessed at the composer’s website. It is well worth reading them.
Logos, the first of the five movements, begins quietly. Right at the start we hear a four-note motto theme, which is to play a key role throughout. As the music unfolds there’s a sense of growth, albeit uncertain even troubled growth. During these first minutes the textures are lean and spare. The opening of the movement, as the composer explains in his substantial note – which is also available on his website – evokes “a world as yet devoid of any affirmative or elevating impulse.” Eventually, at track 7, 3:13, a chorale theme is introduced. This is a very significant theme and, as Pott says, is the nearest thing to a “Christ motif.” I won’t attempt to describe the music in detail – it’s far too complex and diverse for that and, in any case, the composer has made a far better job than ever I could in his notes. However, I will say that the concluding allegro (tracks 12 and, especially, 13) is very exciting, if one may use such a term. Here I suspect the music is illustrating that, at last, Christ has come into the world though the dark forces have by no means been overcome or banished as a result. The composer says this: “Fitfully dramatic and beset by sudden contrasts, the movement seeks to convey some impression of the Holy Spirit [Logos] contending with a resistant pagan force.”
Much of the music in the second movement, Gethsemane, is subdued in tone, yet it is intense, even oppressive. In my listening notes I’ve listed several descriptive words for what I hear, including ‘darkness’, ‘solitude’, ‘apprehension’, ‘suffering’ and ‘negation’. At length the music achieves a substantial but fairly brief climax (track 18) before subsiding to a very subdued end. Francis Pott says the music “becomes both more meekly accepting and more other-worldly.” As I hear it, there’s acceptance but certainly no repose.
Via Crucis, the third movement, is founded on a passacaglia at first, though the form is not conventionally treated. The music grows from subdued beginnings, gaining in power and volume. The momentum increases until a jagged scherzo (track 22), which is very aggressive in nature. A massive climax is attained (track 25) as the moment of the Crucifixion arrives after which the music, in the composer’s words, “finally collapses into an unsettled darkness”. I sense, perhaps, in the final sequence of quiet chords, Christ’s last words, “it is accomplished”.
The fourth movement is entitled Viaticum. This translates as ‘food for the journey’ and in the Roman Catholic Church the term is used for the final receipt of Holy Communion by someone who is close to death. Pott describes the movement as “the dramatic low point” of the symphony and says that it “evokes a world locked in sleep or buried in some deep midwinter of the spirit.” He says that the movement provides “extended repose” between the third and fifth movements. It seems to me to conjure up the Great Stillness over the world that Christians associate with the period of the entombment of Christ. Does it also, perhaps, seek to convey the feelings of loss and fear experienced by the disciples during those days? The music is consistently subdued and as well as the philosophical and theological impulses behind it I think that the movement serves a pragmatic purpose. Though neither the organist nor listeners can lose concentration these pages at least lower the emotional temperature a little – and allow the performer an element of physical respite.
That respite is much needed before the rigours of the enormous final movement, Resurrectio. These rigours are not only intellectual but also, for the organist, physical. The thunderous opening put me in mind of the refrain from the Easter hymn, This Joyful Eastertide, which affirms that Christ “burst his three-day prison”. There’s certainly a palpable feeling of a hugely energetic physical event here and the composer refers to “a great struggle towards the light”. It’s notable, however, that one feels that even now victory over death and the forces of darkness is far from assured. The pages that follow contain what sounds to me like a vast toccata; the music has great energy and the rhythmic impulse is extremely strong throughout. After an immense and extended climax, lasting some six minutes (tracks 10 and 11) the music falls back and eventually an initially quiet fugal episode begins (track 14). That gives way to an extended section (tracks 15 and 16) which the composer describes as ‘War in Heaven’. This is music of raw power, very great energy and no little force. At the culmination of this episode the chorale, first encountered over an hour and a half ago (CD 1, track 7) and heard subsequently in various guises, achieves its apotheosis in C major. Now the chorale is majestic and fulfilled. The work moves to a tumultuous conclusion, which is marked by a stupendous chord of F sharp major, sustained in this performance for nearly 30 seconds.
This is an astonishing work and I hope I’ve given some slight flavour of its scale, reach and ambition. It is an awesome work – in the true sense of the word – and in every sense it’s a compositional tour de force. However, I’m not an uncritical admirer of the work. There are times when I think there’s simply too much music. Two instances that strike me particularly are the fourth movement, where I confess my attention wandered, and the fugal episode in the finale – to be honest, I struggle to see what emotional or musical function that passage fulfils. In both cases – and listeners may have their own views about other passages – I think that perhaps the composer’s invention has run away with him just a bit too freely and less might mean more.
However, I am an uncritical admirer of the performance of Jeremy Filsell. Without a score, who knows whether the performance is note-perfect? But if there is the odd slip in the two-hour span of the piece it’s not apparent and I don’t think it matters at all. The word “virtuosity” doesn’t begin to do justice to his accomplishment here. The amount of work required to learn and master a work that is so complex, both musically and intellectually, almost defies belief. And then to be able to sustain the intellectual rigour and physical effort over the span of the performance is an amazing feat – remember, this is a live performance. This is, quite simply, a jaw-dropping feat of musicianship.
Though the booklet is excellent in many ways, no information is given about the organ but from a bit of web research I believe it to be a four-manual instrument with 75 stops by Kenneth Jones, installed in 1992. It sounds to be a most impressive instrument with a very wide range of colours and registrations available to the player. Filsell exploits its resources to the full in this performance. The recorded sound is very good, allowing the complexities of the music to register but giving space and ambience around the music. There is inevitably some resonance and reverberation but the engineer, Andrew Post, has done a very fine job.
The piece has been divided up into no less than forty-five separate tracks. The only slight regret I have is that track references were not incorporated into Francis Pott’s detailed note about the work; that would have made it much easier for the listener to follow the music as it unfolds.
Inevitably, I’ve described the work in religious terms because that’s how Francis Pott has conceived this magnum opus. However, I think that a listener who does not subscribe to the Christian faith should still be able to appreciateChristus – and admire it, I hope – as a work of art.
This is a highly significant piece of modern organ music. Given its length and the demands it makes on the performer, opportunities to hear it live are likely to be very limited. All the more reason, then to invest in this recorded performance which, surely, can be classed as definitive.
This is a tremendously impressive work, and not only on account of its sheer dimensions, though, at well over two hours it amply sustains interest – an achievement in itself. Overall the vocabulary, while far from harmonically conservative, is less complex than Sorabji; more dialectically contrapuntal than Messiaen, to invoke the 20th century’s composers of huge organ works with whom Pott will inevitably be compared in this work. Christus really doesn’t resemble either – Ronald Stevenson or Robert Simpson (to the latter of whom Pott pays tribute in the work) are better comparisons. Opening with a wandering, unsettled extended passage of open-textured counterpoint which avoids obvious tonal centres, suggesting a world as yet unilluminated by the coming of Christ: as the huge movement progresses a sense of struggle and conflict emerges in ever-thickening textures, leading to a huge chordal climax, after which the dramatic narrative continues with a greater sense of tonality. The drama plays out with the gradual emergence of a triumphant mood in rich and highly colored chordal harmony. The three considerably shorter central movements depict the Passion – a mysterious and shadowy ‘Gethsemane’ is followed by the tripartite central movement, depicting the crucifixion itself. This starts with a most impressive passacaglia ‘Via Crucis’, followed by a bitter and sardonic scherzo, full of leering creatures out of Francis Bacon’s studies for figures at a crucifixion. The crucifixion itself is depicted graphically, alternating apocalyptic outbursts and restrained lament; an extended epilogue finally establishes the latter mood. The fourth movement is relatively static, the music restrained as though in a kind of shocked detachment from the events which preceded it. This uneasy interlude is abruptly dismissed by the huge finale. Rather than celebrating the Resurrection as a fait accompli, much of this movement is taken up with dramatic discourse, passing through a toccata-like allegro (tonal and invigorating) which develops into a more dissonant and warlike climax. A somewhat pastoral interlude follows, during which the tension starts to rise again, followed by an extended fugue, increasingly unconventional in form, and highly inventive. After this breaks off, music of increasing tension leads into the final section, another dramatic toccata, and when the grandeur of the closing pages is finally achieved it is with the sense of an epic spiritual battle fought and won, not an easy, pre-ordained, triumphant resolution.
Described fairly in The Times as ‘a stupendous achievement’, this massive two hour work by Francis Pott (b.1957) is as complex a through-composed organ symphony as you will find. It is tonal and highly chromatic, not coming across as old-fashioned.
The admitted influences are Bach, inevitably, with an unusually rigorous use of motivic counterpoint, allied to the symphonic methods of Carl Nielsen.
I found this performance by Jeremy Filsell invigorating and overwhelmingly exciting, heard live at St Peter’s Church, Eaton Square in 1997, so I was delighted that it has belatedly appeared in Signum’s list.
A CD of a major work for organ is bound to be a compromise and should be regarded as a study document, and one of several possibilities. Dauntingly demanding, and featured by Jeremy Filsell internationally (he also helped get the score through the press), it has more recently been played also by David Leigh in Dublin. Critics nowadays tend usually not to have the convenience of scores to follow, and I am indebted to Universal Music Publishers (UMP) for supplying theirs of Christus, three reasonably priced volumes elegantly printed.
Well used to reading and following orchestral and piano scores, I was disconcerted by becoming lost in the larger movements of Christus – we are not helped to keep our bearings in following the composer’s detailed liner notes and numbered music examples by the lack of links to track numbers (13 in the first movement), or to page references in the score (there are no bar numbers).
No question about Jeremy Filsell’s dedication and endurance. St Peter’s is an important London church which boasts a visually exciting modern instrument that makes a grand noise full blast. The CD is however problematic for an outsider from the organ world. I found the reverberation as recorded hampered hearing as much detail as I should prefer; if that was what the composer wanted, why is there such complexity of notes and rhythms.
The clue if perhaps to be found in Francis Pott’s CV; an accomplished pianist and composer for piano, he is best known for his organ and sacred works. Others will opine whether he is actually a good composer for organ? Repeatedly I found myself imagining how a pianist might sort out the part-writing and voice the chords in ways unavailable to organists; heretical to suggest, but it could sound well on piano-three-hands and is a fair candidate for orchestration.
A clear recommendation for organists and a worth-while investment for organ fanciers, this CD should help to keep Francis Pott’s name before the public, and I anticipate reading with interest reviews by organ experts.