CHARLES FRANCIS has already established his talent in the organ world while still an undergraduate at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, studying under Daniel Moult and Nicholas Wierne. He is Organ Scholar at St Philip’s, Birmingham and also deputises at other English cathedrals. His adoption by the Keyboard Trust will open further opportunities in the UK and abroad, such as this recital in the Summer Organ Festival Young Artist Platform at Westminster Abbey on Sunday August 7 2022.
Westminster Abbey is a .’Royal Peculiar’, meaning that it is under the direct jurisdiction of the monarch. It dates from AD 960 and the current building was in place by the end of the 14th century; ‘a pair of organs’ was recorded as early as 1304. The current organ was installed for the Coronation of George VI in 1937 using the pipes and case from an earlier instrument by William Hill. Further development in the late 20th century added a fifth manual and a Bombarde to give extra support to congregational singing. The organ today matches this ancient foundation in power and stature.
Cavaille-Coll organ at St Sulpice
Charles chose to open his recital by unleashing the full power of the instrument in the first movement of Widor’s Symphony no 5 in F minor, Op 42 no 1. The name ‘Symphony’ comes as a result of his lifelong association with the Romantic organ builder Aristide Cavaille-Coll who built the magnificent organ at St Sulpice in Paris where Widor was organist for 63 years. The Andante Vivace is a set of variations in which Charles demonstrated a highly developed sense of timbre and carefully graded dynamics.
We then heard the Organ Concerto in C BWV 595 by Johann Sebastian Bach which comes from the period of Bach’s transcriptions early in his career before taking up his post at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. This single movement concerto is a transcription of a work by Bach’s then employer, Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar. Charles chose a tempo that allowed the audience to appreciate the clarity of the concerto form with strong ritornelli and bold colours in the solo sections.
A pedal piano
Charles returned to the 19th century for Innig, the fourth of Six Studies in Canonic Form Op 56 by Schumann, written in 1845. Robert and Clara had purchased a pedal piano for their home to enable organ practice to take place there. This coincided with Schumann’s Fugenpassion… a period when he explored counterpoint. Far from being earthbound and academic, this piece is light and airborne: an unhurried tempo took us into the world of Schumann’s love songs, where instead of the canons marching stiffly one behind the other, they played together…
The recital closed with Hubert Parry’s dramatic Fantasia and Fugue in G Op 188 bringing full-blown Romanticism full circle. Parry dedicated it to ‘my dear friend Walter Parratt’. Not known today, Parratt was a child prodigy who played Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues from memory at the age of ten! He rose to become Master of the Queen’s Musick to Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V. The musical language of Parry’s famous ceremonial pieces – the Coronation Anthem ‘I Was Glad’ and ‘Jerusalem’ – is not typical of his vast output, which draws on his many influences: the English oratorio tradition, and his great love of German music from Bach through to Mendelssohn and Wagner. Writing for the leading virtuoso organist of his day challenged Parry to musical brilliance, heard in the flourishes that sweep the full range of the instrument in the Fantasia; the Fugue subject, always clearly heard throughout the contrapuntal working, explodes into the final cadence, prompting applause and shouts from the large and appreciative audience.
What a musical journey we had in a 30-minute recital! Technical brilliance is plentiful today but other qualities set Charles Francis apart. He has a clear, uncompromising concept of what the music has to say and how to communicate it. Spacious tempi and rubati may approach the audacious but always serve the music. He reaches out to the audience with great clarity of line which allows the organ to sing. As his youthful figure appeared above the Westminster Abbey screen to receive the delighted applause, my mind travelled back to 1679 when the 20-year-old Henry Purcell took over as Organist. Britain has a proud history of organ brilliance and in Charles Francis the future is in safe hands.
ANGELA RANSLEY, Director of the Harmony School of Pianoforte.
Angela works closely with the Keyboard Trust and also as a freelance organist..