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Lutyens organ TOCC0639
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Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-1983)
Epithalamion, for soprano and organ, Op. 67 No.3 (1968)
Trois Pièces Brèves (1969)
Plenum IV, for two organs, Op. 100 (1975)
Nativity, for soprano and organ (1951)
Sinfonia Op. 32 (1955)
Suite Op. 17 (1948)
A Sleep of Prisoners (1966)
Chorale Prelude
Temenos Op. 72 (1972)
Tom Winpenny (organ), Philippa Boyle (soprano, Epithalamion & Nativity), Dewi Rees (organ, Plenum IV)
rec. 2021, Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, St Albans, UK

It has been a good twelve months on record for the work of English twentieth century composer, Elisabeth Lutyens. It began with Martin Jones’ exquisite first volume of a planned complete set of her piano music, a recording to which I gave Recommended status. Now we have an enterprising collection of her organ music, most of which has never been recorded before. If any composer deserves a good twelve months on record then it is Lutyens. This is not a case of reviving some minor composer to fill out a biographical entry with some music. Lutyens is one of the most distinctive and important voices of the second half of the last century. It is hard not to link the neglect of her music to her gender even if her music can seem a little austere. That austerity derives from an attitude that subscribed to the highest ideals without compromise rather obscurantism. As the organist Tom Winpenny points out in his immensely helpful notes, Lutyens’ music was always suffused with lyricism. More than that, the best pieces in this collection have a grandeur and an otherworldly sense of mystery that I found hypnotic. Few composers have made as musical an argument for serial techniques as Lutyens.

Winpenny is clearly a passionate advocate and, in his hands, seemingly esoteric matters such as registration become crucial in illuminating the many colours in Lutyens’ scores. That they are demanding works doesn’t for a second mean they are drab. In my review of Martin Jones’ recording of the piano music I mentioned that he played those pieces as though they were Debussy and Winpenny seems on a similar mission to show us the emotional and sensual range in them.

The programme opens boldly with Lutyens’ 1968 setting of Spenser’s Epithalamion, in its version for soprano and organ. This is like music etched on glass, crystalline and bold. It is devoid of romantic cliché yet has a thrilling directness. Philippa Boyle sings fearlessly, attacking the soaring vocal line like a modern day Sibyl. This opening announces that we are in for an hour of music with blood coursing through its veins for all its strangeness and originality.

Boyle makes a similarly bold contribution to the other vocal work included – a setting of Northern Irish poet W R Rodgers’ Nativity. This reflects the less austere face of Lutyens and her involvement in film and theatre music (the music from A Sleep of Prisoners is actual film music) and shows a lively and adroitly practical musical imagination that might surprise those who only know Lutyens’ art music. There is still that tangy, uncompromising quality that I think makes her music so exciting.

The Trois Pièces Brèves, written as replacements for the mighty Temenos, that was judged inappropriate for the organ for which it was commissioned, show Lutyens are her most densely compressed. They are reworkings of music written for the stage. As with her late piano works, the effect is serenely strange. Winpenny again conjures up a rich, almost sensual variety of colours. Not the usual palette but a beguiling one nonetheless.

Plenum IV represents a continuation of the previous works of that name evoking a sense of music that first fills then drains and then fills again. As with much of Lutyens’ work it is a challenging work but one which covers an enormous range in its short span. By this stage in her career, Lutyens’ music had become wholly inimitable, not just leaving behind any Romantic influences but also any audible debt to the composers of the Second Viennese School such as Schoenberg or Berg. It has a ritualistic feel to it and unfolds with a deep sense of inevitability. Its climaxes are terrifying in their harmonic and tonal force not least because they emerge out of such small phrases and gestures.

Temenos, together with Plenum IV, represents the most substantial element of the programme. It was commissioned to inaugurate the organ of Dartington Hall in Devon and the title refers to a sacred space. It forms an interesting, much more expansive, pair with the more gnomic Plenum IV. It bears the somewhat inscrutable inscription: “The gods are here between somewhere and nowhere.” Winpenny in his notes is spot on when he points out the rather orchestral character of the music. I found myself thinking of the Milky Way wheeling overhead in a cold, winter sky. It is music full of great grandeur and epic scope. Despite its palindromic structure, to listen to it feels like the patient gathering together of stray, esoteric phrases into an emphatic unity before they break apart into space. Full marks to Toccata Classics for capturing the St Albans organ in such alarmingly forceful sound! This is Lutyens at her finest.

I don’t propose to itemise every work included in this pioneering release – even the early more traditional Chorale Prelude displays immense craft. I should think this ought to be compulsory listening for organists and I hope it represents another significant step in the restoration of the reputation of one of the finest English composers of the second half of the twentieth century. Bravo to all involved!

David McDade

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