From the Sleevenotes: Passacaglia on a Theme of Benjamin Britten and other Organ Works by Richard Pantcheff

Sleevenotes from the Double CD of Organ Works by Richard Pantcheff, PFCD174/175

With the exception of the Two Short Pieces for Organ which closes disc 2, the works presented here are all more recent works of Richard Pantcheff. It is therefore not difficult to see them somewhat as a summation of the composer’s stylistic development to date. Thus, the rather modal musical language of the earlier organ works (e.g. the Four Communion Preludes of 1994) has here developed into something more linear, direct, and economical. There are occasional uses of serial technique. A similar trend is evident also in the significant amount of chamber music that the composer has written in recent years.

Given the advice and encouragement that Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) had given to Richard Pantcheff in the formative years of the younger composer’s life, it was not altogether surprising that the prospect of Britten’s centenary celebrations in 2013 would lead to Richard Pantcheff being commissioned to write a new work in tribute.

Two extraordinary and unconnected events conspired to enable the composition and premiere of the resultant Passacaglia on a Theme of Benjamin Britten (Opus 87).

Firstly, the late, great, organist Jane Parker-Smith had premiered a number of Richard Pantcheff ’s organ works in the first decade of the twenty first century. It was therefore no surprise that she collaborated with the composer on this new work in Britten’s memory. She then premiered the work in her recital in Essen Cathedral on 11th September 2013 as part of the world-wide ‘Britten 100’ celebrations.

Secondly, the theme upon which the Passacaglia is based exists only in manuscript form, in Britten’s own hand, dating from February 1958. At that time, Britten had been asked by his friend, the organist Ralph Downes, to provide a short theme for organ, so it could be given to the great French organist Jean Langlais (1907-1991) to improvise upon at the recital he was giving to open the new organ at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Ralph Downes had been closely involved in the design and installation of the new instrument. Britten, in haste, duly provided the three-bar theme (on the back of a letter to Downes), and Langlais did indeed perform the improvisation at the Royal Festival Hall. Since then, however, letter and theme have been out of public view. Richard Pantcheff was able to gain access to the theme and the letter, and duly wrote the Passacaglia in honour of Benjamin Britten in September 2012, in readiness for the Essen premiere the following year. It is perhaps fitting that the composer should choose to use the theme for a new work for organ, given its original provenance, and also the fact that Britten himself wrote very little music for the instrument. It is also well-known, of course, that a Passacaglia was one of Britten’s favourite musical forms.

The opening section of the Passacaglia presents and slightly extends the Britten theme over a low pedal C. The ensuing section (poco piu mosso) sees the left hand developing the theme further, and the pedals stating the theme more directly.

The intensity and chromaticism of the writing increases over the following passage, and at bar 41 the pedals re-enter with a solo section in which the theme is developed in rhythmic triplets. This in turn subsides, to allow the manuals to pick up the theme (with the pedal triplets now providing a disturbed, rocking, motif underneath). This section reaches a climax at bar 97, after which an eerie, elevated section (with more than a nod to the organ part in Britten’s War Requiem) takes us back to the recapitulation. Again the texture becomes more complex and chromatic, until the work reaches its conclusion on full organ in C major.

The magnificent and much-loved Anglican church of St. George in Johannesburg, South Africa (designed by Sir Herbert Baker), is situated just north of the city centre, and has for a long time been a major centre for musical performance in the country. After many years of planning, a superb new two-manual Rieger organ was installed in the church in 2012.

In honour of the organ’s installation, the composer was asked to write a work comprising several shortish movements for use at appropriate moments before or during church services, and which would show off the splendid colours of this magnificent new instrument. Thus A Sequence for St. George (Opus 84) came into being. Each of the twelve movements lasts two and a half minutes, and carries an inscription from the Beatitudes or the Psalms. The original score of the work contains a subtitle : Twelve Meditations for Organ, aptly describing the musical atmosphere of the pieces.

The first of the movements of A Sequence for St. George was premiered by Peter Black on the new Rieger organ of St. George’s Anglican Church, Johannesburg, on Trinity Sunday, 3rd June 2012, with the remaining movements performed variously on subsequent Sundays.

The Orgelbüchlein Project is widely regarded as one of the most important and ambitious international musical projects of recent years. Its purpose was to commission contemporary composers of organ music to complete the Chorale Preludes of J.S. Bach’s Orgelbüchlein which were left unwritten at the time of his death in 1750 (see www.orgelbuechlein.co.uk).

Each contemporary contribution to the project was sponsored, and when Richard Pantcheff was invited to contribute, his new work was sponsored by St. George’s Anglican Church, Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was Director of Music at the time.

The Chorale whose prelude was designated for completion by the composer was that entitled ‘Werde munter, mein Gemuete’, a tune which we more customarily associate with the text ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’.

The Chorale Prelude ‘Werde munter, mein Gemuete’ (Opus 104) has a duration of approximately two minutes. In tenuto crotchets, the pedals mark out a series of note-rows based upon the letters of Bach’s surname (B-A-C-H). The left hand, in complete contrast, weaves an energetic line in quavers and semi-quavers, elaborating, and often in syncopation with, the rhythmically predictable (but tonally very unpredictable) pedals. The flutes in the right hand project the Chorale melody (frequently in the minor key) in long phrases of breves, semi-breves, and triplets. The two hands and the pedals operate with different key signatures : B flat for the right hand; A major for the left hand; and C major for the pedals. All three come together to project a key of B major two bars from the end. (B natural being designated as H in the tonal architecture common at the time of Bach).

By special permission of St. George’s Anglican Church, Johannesburg, ‘Werde munter, mein Gemuete’ was premiered by Jem Stephenson at the organ of Westminster Abbey, London, on 30th December 2018. The work’s first performance at a very full St. George’s Anglican Church, Johannesburg, was on 15th February 2019, played by Marnus Greyling.

The idea of making right hand, left hand, and pedals operate very independently of each other (as in the Chorale Prelude, above) was one which the composer had in fact put into effect in an earlier work, namely the Trio Sonata No.1 for Organ (Opus 95).

Unusually for this composer, this work was not the result of a commission, but rather arose from a desire on his part to write a more complex and substantial work for the instrument. The disposition of very linear thematic material between the three performing limbs serves to emphasise the work’s contrapuntal nature (harking back somewhat to Bach-ian models of form and texture), although the tonal language of the music language here is extremely contemporary.

Each of the three movements of the Sonata lasts three minutes, and as the work progresses, so the complexity of the thematic and tonal material increases, the textures become more dense, and the connections between themes in right hand, left hand, and pedal intensify. The final movement involves significant sections of double-pedalling, and the rhythmic drive increases as the work moves towards its final climax on Full Organ, where any sense of slowing up for the final chord is dispelled by the accelerando marking in the penultimate bar.

The Trio Sonata No. 1 for Organ was written in Johannesburg, South Africa, in September and October 2015.

Voces Organi (Opus 107) is a collection of six works for organ, started in December 2019, shortly after the composer returned from South Africa to live in the UK. The title (‘Voices of the Organ’) was chosen as each piece sets out to provide the maximum opportunity for the organist to use the different colours of the organ to the fullest extent possible.

Each of the six movements is intended to last approximately three and a half minutes, so they can be easily accommodated before, during, or after church services, or indeed, in recital.

The subtitle of the work (Six Improvisations for Organ) indicates the improvisatory nature of the pieces and the fact that they may be played with great effect either individually, or grouped together.

The titles of the pieces also loosely follow the major festivals of the church’s year, and the composer has used a number of plainsong melodies appropriate to each of the respective festivals. The Performer’s Notes in the score, however, make it clear that the works are not intended to be limited to liturgical use.

The composer wrote the work in order to provide interesting and new pieces for the instrument, but also such that they should be capable of performance by organists of all abilities. The musical interest of the works therefore relies more upon the spontaneity of the harmonic language, the breadth of musical expression, the underlying use of plainsong themes, and the improvisatory energy of each piece.

The composer gave the first performance of the third piece in the collection at a service for Ripon College on the organ of All Saints Church, Cuddesdon, Oxford, on 11th March 2020.

The Two Short Pieces for Organ were originally part of a set of six hymn preludes written in May and June 1996, by which time the composer had returned from Germany to live in Oxford. Of the six, four were published and performed at the time of composition, but two were, for some unknown reason, withheld. The composer re-visited the two withheld works in 2016, and, after making some editorial adjustments, they were duly released and published. The first performance was given by Alexander Eadon on the organ of St. Saviour’s Church, Eastbourne, on 6th June 2016.

The works on this disc traverse a wide range of sources, commissions, and ideas. From short, intimate reflections, through seasonal and liturgical pieces, to large scale works based on previously (almost completely) unheard themes, the disc provides a perfect summation of this composer’s works over the last decade or so, and provides fascinating connections to his choral and chamber music compositions completed over the same timeframe. All share the same economical musical style, compositional eye for detail, and direct engagement with the listener.

Richard Pantcheff is internationally renowned as one of the finest contemporary British composers of Choral, Organ, Chamber and Instrumental music. He was trained in choral music and composition from an early age, starting as a chorister at Ripon Cathedral, and thereafter reading music at Christ Church, Oxford, under Simon Preston and Francis Grier. He was mentored in composition by Benjamin Britten in the last years of Britten’s life.

Since then he has been commissioned to write new works for the leading performers in their field, both in the UK and internationally, including Stephen Layton, Grayston Ives, David Hill, Jane Parker-Smith, John Scott, Stephen Darlington, Clive Driskill-Smith, and the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, amongst many others.

From 2012-2019 he was Director of Music at St. George’s Anglican Church, Johannesburg, South Africa, where he remains Composer in Residence. He is a Patron of the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music. He is currently guest conductor of the Choir of St. Michael at the Northgate, Oxford, and is occasional guest organist for Ripon College, Oxford.

His substantial output of compositions has been commissioned, performed, recorded, and broadcast all over the world.

This includes performances in at least thirteen of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge universities in the UK, as well as in many British cathedrals (e.g. St. Paul’s in London). Highlights include King Henry VIII’s Apologia, a festival anthem commissioned by Christ Church, Oxford, in honour of the 450th anniversary of its foundation. (which was also performed in London as part of the 80th birthday celebrations of the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies in 2014).

His 2013 work for organ, Passacaglia on a Theme of Benjamin Britten, was premiered in Essen Cathedral by Jane Parker-Smith, as part of the Britten 100 Festival.

In 2018, he was commissioned to contribute a new work to the Orgelbuechlein Project in London. The Choral Prelude : ‘Werde Munter, mein Gemuete’ was premiered on the organ of Westminster Abbey in December 2018.

All of his music has been published, and features in major international music festivals, including the Tanglewood Festival (USA); the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music (UK); the Cape Festival of Voices (South Africa); the National Arts Festival (South Africa); Britten 100; and the English Music Festival.

There are currently fourteen commercially-released CDs and EPs in the catalogue featuring his music, many containing only his work, which have received excellent reviews. Upon its release on the Orchid Classics label in September 2020, his most recent CD with the London Choral Sinfonia (The Music of Richard Pantcheff, Volume 1) went straight to number twelve in the Gramophone Magazine’s Classical Charts.

His works have been broadcast regularly on radio and TV around the world, including by the PBS (North America), Norwegian TV, the CBC (Caribbean), Classic FM (UK and South Africa), BBC Radios 3 and 4 (UK), German radio, and TV in South Africa. A number of his works are streamed on YouTube, and are available on Spotify.

His compositions are noted by critics and audiences alike for their originality and technical brilliance, combined with intellectual and emotional depth.

More information can be found on his website : www.richardpantcheff.com

Simon Passmore was born in Hexham, Northumberland in 1990 and began piano lessons at the age of seven, studying with Hexham Abbey’s then directors of music John Green and Michael Haynes and later with Newcastle University’s head of keyboard David Murray. He has given solo piano recitals at numerous festivals across the UK and has featured as a concerto soloist both in the UK and abroad.

Simon is currently the Director of Music at St Ann’s Church, Manchester, following in the footsteps of his mentor, Ronald Frost, who held the post for over 38 years and performed over 1000 free recitals.

After finishing a BMus at the RNCM, studying with Murray McLachlan, Simon completed the repetiteur course supported by a full scholarship, studying with Kevin Thraves. His awards whilst an undergraduate included the Alfred Clay Prize for the highest final recital mark, the Christopher Duke prize, 1st prize in both EPTA UK and EPTA Belgium competitions, and several prizes for accompaniment.

Aside from music, Simon is a keen football fan and hopes to see Plymouth Argyle succeed beyond anybody’s reasonable expectations.