No matter how long I’ve listened seriously to classical music – and with a mere decade of doing so behind me, I’m still one of the beginners – it’s always a good thing to be reminded that I’ll remain a learner for the duration, until my senses fail.
There are always new sounds and new repertoire to be discovered, and I have to admit that until recently, organ music was one of my uncharted territories. Here be monsters: or at least, a great deal of noise. Not anymore. It’s taken a single disc to give me this epiphany: the debut solo disc from Anna Lapwood, ‘Images’.
Lapwood tackles the all-too-common preconception about organ music – fear of the ‘blast’, that it’s all about volume and power – head-on. She has brought together a programme that works like a proper album, carefully sequenced to showcase the sheer variety of tones, timbres and dynamics that the instrument can offer. I’m always delighted when musicians do this – being artist-led, more and more I want to hear records that don’t necessarily cover a ‘complete works’ or particular style: I want this disc to be about Anna Lapwood – and it is.
Although Lapwood herself would be the first to acknowledge that in some ways this is a duo, or even trio, recording: a shared undertaking between Lapwood, the organ, and the venue, which in this case is Ely Cathedral. In her superb booklet notes – more of which later – Lapwood refers several times to choosing or transcribing works (such as Owain Park’s piece that gives the disc its name) which account for the building’s resonance in the writing: holding back for breath and echo rather than piling notes on top of each other.
The production by Adrian Peacock also deserves special mention, because it achieves that (literally, in this case) Holy Grail of placing you in the room with the artist. ‘Images’ is a textbook ‘headphones’ album – close listening brings rich rewards as the three dimensions of the space become almost audible and certain phrases seems closer or further away, as well as moving ‘across’ the sound spectrum as you might expect.
To give just one example, Lapwood’s transcription of ‘Moonlight’, the third of Britten’s Sea Interludes – a version of such measured, lie-in-wait beauty, it brought a tear to this writer’s eye. Her command of timbre and volume must be fearsome: as the lower notes gradually swell like the tides, you could swear you hear the sky, too – the breath or movement of air around the sound. Higher notes, weather impacting the sea, drive the lower chords on until they interact. All the while, this has the effect not so much of getting louder, but closer, as if breaking ashore.
Lapwood herself writes about the organ’s relationship to the sea, in that they both convey a sense of huge power that needs to be kept in check – and it’s at this point that I want to draw attention to her booklet notes, which are engaging, informative and generous. Many of you will know that Lapwood is a fine ambassador for classical music, particularly women’s roles within it. You may have come across her already as both a presenter and performer in this year’s Proms, or through her work as Director of Music at Pembroke College, Cambridge where she founded the Girl’s Choir in 2018 and released the joint Pembroke Choirs’ debut CD in 2020.
A natural communicator, then: and in her notes, she has catered for everyone. She explains the effects she is going for in descriptive or metaphorical terms in a way that someone like me, without a musicology background, can understand and appreciate – while still including the detail of the settings and techniques – right down to the stops – to please those expert listeners who also play, or know the instrument inside out.
It’s very difficult to pick out highlights from an album that contains so many varieties of mood – Lapwood deliberately unleashes the full force of the organ only sparingly – and is sequenced to work so well as a whole. Her arrangement of Messiaen’s ‘Vocalise-Étude’, a delicate piece originally written for soprano (singing a vocal line without words) and piano, is a stand-out: using the organ stops to give the ‘voice’ and accompaniment different characters, without once overpowering each other or the listener, it’s a perfect example of the restraint she describes. This video of the track – a Bitesize Prom performance – is of course more ‘raw’ than the album version, but I think it’s instructive to show the feat of co-ordination needed to play even a piece that can feel quite sparse and steady.
Closing track ‘Taking Your Leave’, by Cheryl France-Hoad, is a whirlwind tour of extremes – not at the expense of listenability, but requiring Lapwood to juxtapose an intense build-up of sound to the point where it seems hardly possible one person and four limbs is managing it, to sudden drop-outs providing an agitated hush. It’s ideal for its place in the ‘recital encore’ position on the disc.
Kerensa Briggs’s ‘Light In Darkness’ is an affecting, in some ways unsettling companion to Britten’s evocations of the sea, as the low notes suggest a vast, still void that the illumination of the higher chords and melody cannot quite penetrate.
Also impossible not to mention the two suites on the disc: Ravel’s three-part ‘Le Tombeau de Couperin’ has Lapwood maintaining a spectral agility throughout, while – as the striking sleeve portrait suggests – perhaps the disc belongs to her triumphant arrangement of all four Britten’s Sea Interludes – from the tentative reach and sprawl of first light in ‘Dawn’ to the oppressive, climactic thunder of ‘Storm’, it’s a tour-de-force of interpretation.
If you are an organ aficionado, you will want this album – in fact, you probably already have it. But if you are curious about, or new to this repertoire, you should buy it as well. Lapwood has made her aims clear both in her playing and writing, and it’s my pleasure to confirm that ‘Images’ fulfils all these ambitions admirably. More, much more, of this sort of thing.
Cover and booklet photography: Nick White.