Christus at the Ulster Hall

Australian pianist Tristan Russcher prepares to perform one of the longest and most challenging classical compositions ever written on the Mulholland Organ

What’s over two hours long, took five years to write, is virtually impossible to play in places, and has only ever been performed by eight people?

As classical trivia questions go, it’s a pretty good one. The answer is Christus, the mammoth organ work by English composer Francis Pott. Premiered 20-odd years ago in Westminster Cathedral, it comes to Belfast on October 9 as part of the 150th anniversary celebrations of the Ulster Hall’s mighty Mulholland organ.

Was Christus, I ask Pott, always intended as a piece of Guinness Book of Records-bothering proportions? ‘It was,’ he replies, sheepishly. ‘Although it got larger as it went on! It was a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, and it got me by the throat. It is vast.’

Pott reveals (in a comment guaranteed to send shivers down the fingers of those who’ve played the piece) that the piece could easily have been even vaster. ‘I suppose I ended up with probably as much material that didn’t go into it as did,’ he muses. Organists will be fervently hoping that he burned those extra sheets of paper.

Christus has, perhaps inevitably, divided the critics. ‘Some people have loved it,’ Pott says. But this is a touch modest.

‘An astonishingly original composition’, ‘a stupendous achievement’, and ‘a deeply thoughtful consideration of the Resurrection and the relevance of its symbolism in today's world', are just a handful of the encomiums Christus has attracted in its two-decade history.

There have, however, been those who bridle at the work’s monumental dimensions. ‘In a funny sort of way,’ explains Pott, ‘the sheer scale of it begins to strike them as an affront. But if you stick your head over the parapet and write something on that scale, you’ve got to be prepared for someone to tell you you’re a megalomaniac.’

One man who has no doubts whatsoever about Christus is Tristan Russcher, the Dublin-based organist who will perform the piece in Belfast. ‘I don't think enough people realise that it is one of the most significant organ works of the 20th century,’ he comments.

‘A lot of listeners are at first put off by the length, and are reluctant to sit through a performance. But both musicians and non-musicians alike invariably, in my experience, come away wondering where the time went.’

Russcher’s initial encounter with Christus actually happened on another continent. 'Christus was the first organ CD I ever bought,’ he remembers, ‘back when I was 14 and living in Perth, Australia. I was just starting out as an organist at St George's Cathedral, and Iain Simcock's wonderful recording of the work was one of only three organ CDs available in the cathedral shop. I think I was hooked from that point on.’

By his own admission ‘a bit of a Christus junkie', Russcher was quickly gripped by an ambition to play the piece. Finding time to learn it, in his busy schedule as an organ scholar at St Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals in Dublin, was another matter. ‘I left Christ Church in 2010,’ he says, ‘and began work on Christus in April of that year. It took two years, on and off, to learn it.’

The length of Christus, explains Russcher, is far from being the only reason such a long period of preparation is needed to get the work ready for real-time performance. ‘The entire work is technically very difficult. Every note must be learned, systematically entered into muscle memory, and nothing can be left to chance.

‘There are sections in the middle of the third and fifth movements which, in my opinion, are approaching unplayable. The stamina and concentration required is immense, not just to physically play all the notes, but to control the roller coaster ride of tempi.’

Francis Pott is acutely aware of how big a task he has set potential interpreters of Christus. ‘Technically it’s extraordinarily difficult to play,’ he acknowledges. It turns out, however, that these gargantuan difficulties have a serious purpose.

‘It’s a very long and lonely journey for the player, both learning it and performing it. But that has metaphorical value in a way,’ he continues. ‘There’s a sense in which the player struggling against impossible odds is almost part of what’s being said. I felt it needed that dimension to it.’

And what is being said exactly in Christus? Is it ‘about’ anything in particular? Pott himself has commented that the work involved a ‘search for Christian conviction, in the shadow of a dark century’, at the time he wrote it.

Times change, however. ‘I suppose I’ve turned into a kind of humanistic agnostic over the years,’ he ponders. ‘I’ve had a kind of restless disaffection with the established church.’ Christus is not in that sense, Pott argues, a specifically ‘Christian’ work.

He does, however, point to a broader range of possible significances, referring to the attempt ‘to articulate a triumph of light over darkness, compassion over brutality, or hope over despair’, which he made in writing Christus. ‘I would hope that people could listen to it and get something on the metaphorical or allegorical level from it, regardless of Christian faith.'

Pott’s analysis is echoed by Russcher, who describes Christus as being about ‘ultimately about the battle between good and evil'. He singles out the work’s conclusion as, for him, a moment of special significance. ‘The glorious ending of the fifth movement is, in my opinion, an extraordinary musical representation of victory, of triumph over adversity.’

Russcher has played Christus just once before in public, on Palm Sunday this year (‘April Fools’ Day!’ he laughs), in Saint Bartholomew's Church, Dublin. He is relishing the opportunity to let the Ulster Hall’s ‘big beast’ loose on Pott’s masterwork, and is promising fireworks to those attending the concert.

‘The Mulholland organ is astonishing in its clarity and sheer volume,’ he enthuses. ‘I will keep the ultimate power held back until the finale of the fifth movement, which builds as a tidal wave of sound to the climax.

‘There are a couple of extraordinary moments where I will use the en chamade trumpets,’ he adds, referring to the special, clarion-like pipes protruding horizontally from the organ casework, above the head of the player. ‘If they don't give the listener a heart attack, they will definitely deliver a close haircut!’

Christus will be performed in the Ulster Hall on Tuesday, October 9 at 7.45pm.