PHI CD 216: Ralph Downes - organ
A Centenary Tribute
The Royal Festival Hall, London
The London Oratory
Royal Festival Hall, London
from Pye GSGC 14024 1958
 Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937)
Toccata (from Symphony No.5)
 -  J. S. Bach (1685-1750)
Partite diverse: Sei gegrüsset Jesu gutig (BWV 768)
(Chorale & 11 variations)
Royal Festival, Hall London
from Pye TPLS 13001-2 1967
J. S. Bach Three manualiter chorale preludes from
Clavierubüng Part III:
 (a) Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr' (BWV 677)
 (b) Dies sind die heil'gen zehn Gebot' (BWV 679)
 (c) Vater unser im Himmelreich (BWV 683)
The London Oratory
from Saga Pan 6328 1965
 César Franck (1822-90) Prière
 Charles Tournemire (1870-1939)
Paraphrase-Carillon for the Assumption
(from L'Orgue Mystique Office No.35)
Royal Festival Hall, London
from Vista VPS 1089 1979
 César Franck Fantaisie in A major
 Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877-1933)
The Soul of the Lake Op. 96 No.1
(from Seven Pastels from the Lake of Constance)
 Sigfrid Karg-Elert
Rondo alla Campanella Op.156
Marcel Dupré (1886-1971) Three versets from
Vespers of the Blessed Virgin Mary Op.18:
 (a) Psalm Antiphon II: Laeva ejus
 (b) Magnificat verset I: Et exsultavit
 (c) Magnificat verset VI: Toccata sur le Gloria
TOTAL PLAYING TIME: 78.41
Ralph Downes a centenary tribute by
No-one exercised more decisive influence than Ralph Downes (1904-1993) in shaping the English organ scene in the second half of the 20th century. Designer of the organs in the Royal Festival Hall, the London Oratory, St Alban's Abbey, Paisley Abbey, Gloucester Cathedral and elsewhere, he was also the most sought-after teacher in the country, especially in the period 1954-1976 when he was a professor of organ at the Royal College of Music, his pupils there including Gillian Weir, Nicholas Kynaston, Nicholas Danby, Margaret Phillips and Thomas Trotter. Yet he was also one of the few English players of the post-War period to be accepted as a kindred spirit by the leading continental player-teachers such as Anton Heiller, Albert de Klerk and Marie-Claire Alain.
Tenacious, quick-witted, incisive, courageous and scrupulously honest, Downes's musical character was driven by a rigorous classicism and an abiding concern for 'musical lucidity' (his words). Born in Derby, he studied at the Royal College of Music 1922-25 with Sir Walter Alcock and Dr Henry Ley and then took an organ scholarship to Keble College, Oxford. Seven years in the USA from 1928 as Director of Chapel Music at Princeton University opened him up both to contemporary and to early music.
Though the period of his greatest playing celebrity came after the opening of the Royal Festival Hall organ in 1954, when he was already nearly 50, Downes was in the forefront of the British organ-playing scene immediately on his return from the USA in 1936 to become Organist of the London (Brompton) Oratory. He was clearly viewed even then as a distinctive, perhaps even 'niche' figure. His output on 78s comprised classic repertoire, especially Bach and Buxtehude. Perhaps even more noteworthy was his commitment to contemporary music: he gave the UK premieres of Hindemith's first two organ sonatas (prepared with the composer himself) in 1938, and later Schoenberg's Variations on a Recitative and Milhaud's Neuf Préludes.
The playing style we hear on those 78s and in a live 1948 BBC broadcast Dupré Prelude and Fugue in G minor already issued in Amphion Recordings's British Organists of the 1920s, Volume 4 - PHI CD 199, series is identifiably the same Downes familiar in later recordings clear, direct and unfussy (and not without occasional slips). Though his playing could display superb virtuosity, there is an almost deliberate avoidance of surface 'finish' and an unblinking focus on musical truth.
The essential musical grammar of the composer's score is his overriding concern, expressed not as for aural dictation but for intellectual understanding. Tempo (including rubato), rhythm, accent, registration all serve this central purpose. The tone of delivery may be surprisingly objective, yet there is a sense of complete certainty in the presentation.
These qualities are immediately apparent in Downes's most famous recording, the first stereophonic organ recording to be published in the UK. It was recorded (he told me) in a single session in 1957 in the small hours of the morning as the second part of experimental stereo sessions in the Royal Festival Hall. While some jazz combo put down their set of numbers until well after midnight, Downes cat-napped in the green room, awaiting his turn. The resulting Pye 'Golden Guinea' Bach anthology plus the Widor Toccata, first issued in 1958, became a best-seller and a central part of many young organists' listening experience. Side One of that LP is reissued complete here. The Widor (though not immaculate) has great drive with the pedal octaves of the recapitulation arriving on cue with devastating punctuality and crackling with elemental energy. But the really great performance on the LP, to my mind, is that of the Sei gegrüsset Variations, a work combining material both from Bach's youth and maturity. Downes binds it all together with majestic sweep, the continuity and contrast of tempo from variation to variation handled masterfully. The detail of registration (itemised on the original LP sleeve) and articulation constantly engages the listener's ear and imagination. The lengthy penultimate Variation X is given with a boldness of pulse and strength of touch, making it not just the apex of the work but one of the most exalted of all Bach's chorale preludes. The concluding 5-part plenum has a finality which brooks no argument.
Though it was the RFH organ which propelled him centre-stage as a performer in the 1950s, the actual centre of Downes's life as a performer was in the liturgy at the London Oratory from 1936 to 1977. He had become a Catholic while in the USA and had undertaken rigorous study in all aspects of Gregorian chant and its relationship to the liturgy. His service playing in improvisations and chant accompaniment was deeply meditative, full of liturgical understanding, self-effacing yet authoritative as well. For voluntaries he ranged over the whole solo liturgical repertoire from the 16th to the 20th centuries. For example the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 15th August, would receive sumptuous treatment from Hofhaimer and Bull, through Titelouze and de Grigny to Dupré and Tournemire.
On an LP devoted to Franck and his disciples, set down in his
beloved Oratory in 1965 (though in sound which unfortunately takes
no advantage of the Oratory's superbly atmospheric acoustics)
he recalled earlier formative listening experiences, with outstanding
performances of Franck's Prière and Tournemire's Paraphrase-Carillon
for the Feast of the Assumption (probably the first British recording
of anything by Tournemire). The Franck, one of the Six Pièces
of 1862, is a wonderful example of Downes's control of symphonic
structure, presenting the work in one unforced lyrical, narrative
arc developed over an essentially steady, though subtly varied
basic pulse. The elevated nobility of the climaxes is matched
by the Beethovenian stoicism of the coda, broken but unbowed.
His inspiration for this interpretation dated back to a recital
by Albert Schweitzer given in New College, Oxford in 1926, for
which the young Ralph (then organ scholar at Keble College) was
the page-turner. The recital included two interpretations which
for Downes always remained touchstones of musical truth
the Bach 'great' B minor Prelude and Fugue and the Franck Prière.
As thanks for his good offices Schweitzer gave the young man an
autographed photo-portrait which remained one of his treasured
possessions to the end of his life.
At the time when he was becoming immersed in the spirituality of Catholic liturgy, Downes had seized on the volumes of Tournemire's chant-inspired L'Orgue Mystique as they appeared in the early 1930s and also Tournemire's recordings (comprising the celebrated improvisations subsequently transcribed by Duruflé and excerpts from L'Orgue Mystique including the Paraphrase-Carillon). Downes once admitted to me that he sometimes found the rhapsodic, improvisatory Tournemire 'inscrutable', yet his own knowledge of the chant allowed him often to uncover the poetic logic and devotional depths of many movements in L'Orgue Mystique. The Paraphrase-Carillon (which Messiaen, an active Tournemire disciple in the 1920s and '30s, considered one of the essential works in the organist's repertory) contrasts outer sections of countless cascading bells underpinned by thunderous pedal quotations from the Salve Regina, with an exquisite central harmonisation of the hymn Ave maris stella garlanded by delicate treble and bass chimes. This performance is predictably less rhapsodic than Tournemire's, yet ultimately not less exciting, for (as in so much of his playing) Downes had the ability to set the music aflame from within (as it were), by virility of touch, by complete structural grasp and by his ability to communicate an unquenchable intellectual vitality.
In the mid-1960s Downes was at his most active as a teacher,
designer and performer. Pye recorded much of his Bach: the '18'
Leipzig Chorale Preludes, the Clavierübung Part III, the
6 Schübler Chorale Preludes as well as recordings which have
remained unissued the 6 Trio Sonatas (only Sonata V appeared
on an EMI CD in the early 1990s) and the Passacaglia and Fugue
in C minor - and all at the Royal Festival Hall. These performances,
though well-regarded at the time, seem less significant now: the
electro-pneumatic action of the RFH organ and the neutral acoustic
of the hall seem inhibiting factors on Lutheran music of such
specific cultural and theological import. Nevertheless his observations
on Bach tempi, registration and articulation always remained acute,
as the three manualiter preludes from the Clavierübung Part
III reissued here charmingly demonstrate.
The essential qualities of Downes's playing remained undimmed in his last recording, a 1979 75th birthday recital in the RFH. Side Two of the LP, reissued complete here and devoted to 19th and 20th century repertoire, may contain minor slips understandable from a septuagenarian, but of trifling musical consequence in the context of playing of such straight-backed musical conviction and registrational mastery. The Franck Fantaisie in A (one of the Trois Pièces of 1878, and like the Prière one of Franck's most elusive pieces to interpret convincingly) is an object lesson in pacing, control of tension and creation of a convincingly authentic tonal palette. Karg-Elert's brooding, briefly stormy The Soul of the Lake (from Seven Pastels of Lake Constance of 1919) and the scintillating Rondo alla Campanella (1933) are simply astonishing: the control of switch-back impressionistic changes of colour is as remarkable as the stunning keyboard virtuosity. As ever in Downes's playing, the just tempo was never permitted to give any quarter to caution or to age. Finally, he reasserts his essential Catholic roots in three versets from Dupré's Vespers of 1920, the last great work written in the French liturgical alternatim tradition of Titelouze, Couperin and de Grigny and originally conceived for Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris. Tempi in the first two are beautifully gauged to present each verset as a continuous, singing musical arch and the final Toccata (note the fastidiously selective 'Grand Choeur' registration) whirls like a fiery brand wielded by Savonarola.
Downes gave his final RFH recital in 1986 and his last recital
of all in the London Oratory in October 1987. He continued playing
occasionally in the liturgy at the Oratory, as Organist Emeritus,
until 1991. He died peacefully on Christmas Eve 1993. Following
his own wishes, the music of his requiem mass in the Oratory consisted
entirely of Gregorian chant and the organ was silent.
2004 saw the centenary of Downes's birth and the 50th anniversary of what are now generally considered, in their different ways, his two most significant organs, those in the Royal Festival Hall and the London Oratory. Despite the modesty of his demeanour and slight physical stature, Downes was a galvanic performer and never more so than when playing his own instruments, as these now historically significant performances bear ample testimony.
© Patrick Russill, 2005
Patrick Russill, now Director of Music at the London Oratory
and Head of Choral Direction & Church Music at the Royal Academy
of Music was nominated by Ralph Downes to succeed him as Organist
of the London Oratory in 1977.