On the afternoon of this recital, our welcome fifth – fifth! – visit by Indian Summer splashed warmth and watery sun across southern New England. Many a face from Boston and elsewhere equally distant from Worcester glowed gently in the reflected light of the big screen up front in St. Joseph Chapel. All were braced to peer through the dazzle that at first cloaked the large-format view from the organ balcony’s camera. As the program began, however, familiar November murk arrived to help. The clear, intimate perspective on console and performer that suddenly appeared — without an attendant Potteresque “crack” — is among the nicest aspects of Holy Cross’s free organ recitals. How engaging to revel in the unforgettable wealth of sound and organ score while witnessing, surprisingly intimately, the very considerable level of activity up there. One registrant on either side draws and returns the straight-pull stop knobs, the supremely busy player manages his four manuals and straight pedal-board, and those many pages turn. The screen effectively banishes a familiar organ recital disconnect, the performer’s visual anonymity, and that of “mission control” — the console. As a result, the listener participates on levels that are usually the preserve of stage performance.
Multiple prize-winner Joseph Ripka has no trouble transcending the organist’s accustomed invisibility as his young career continues to unfold. He opened with a pair of extravagantly expressive secular works by ever-surprising Dieterich Buxtehude, Präludia in C & a, then redefined the very same idiom theme with Georg Böhm’s restless, terse Präludium in a. Three preludes in a row made for gripping listening, not monotony. Full registrations and restrained ones succeeded one another, hinting at the firestorm to be unleashed when later scores called for the big guns. Böhm’s winsome Partite: Jesu, du bist allzu schöne strolled among the gentler stops, save for modest reed fire toward the end, with such suave ease that the lightning stop and manual changes visible on screen were an intriguing contrast with the unruffled superficiality of the variations.
Mr. Ripka’s poignant unfolding of Bach’s Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr, BWV 662, made his subsequent forthright leap into our era the recital’s turning point, with one of Marcel Dupré’s Trois préludes et fugues, Op. 7. In playing the third in this seminal set, cast broodingly in the key of f, he scoured the many foundation stops in search of half-resolutions and emotional chiaroscura. He concluded with five brash, extrovert, clash-permeated broadsword iterations of the Victimæa Paschali by contemporary Parisian composer Thierry Escaich. Mr. Ripka is a player with a gift for dramatic rhetoric and constant registrational inspiration. He put the Chapel’s very fine acoustics to unusually effective use, an additional source of delight.
The exquisitely voiced Taylor & Boody organ (Op. 9, 1985) is widely known as one of the great instruments of our land. Its elaborate stop list is a fully kitted-out child of the flourishing, opulent organ-building era of the late-17th/early-18th-century Netherlands and neighboring North Germany. The organ’s era-appropriate temperament (~Kirnberger) and uncompromising mechanical action throughout support this impression. And yet, as with an exceptional instrument of any era, the tonal resources for successful interpretation of much later music are there in sumptuous abundance. The five Werke – organ divisions played from the straight period pedal and the four reverse-black manuals – infuse modern scores with the power and supreme brilliance of the Northern European Baroque. These same registrational possibilities have astonished listeners, and not a few organists, in the big Liszt Fantasien, Mendessohn Orgel-Sonaten, and the elusively skittering-about Vierne Pièces.
On Bach’s 325th birthday — 21 March 2010 — James David Christie, longtime mentor of some of the finest organists to graduate from Holy Cross, Oberlin, and Wellesley, will play the 25th anniversary recital of this organ he caused to be built. It should be quite an afternoon.