On Sunday afternoon, October 31, the 21st annual organ benefit concert took place at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Boston, to raise funds for the continuing restoration of the cathedral’s magnificent 1875 E. & G.G. Hook & Hastings organ. It was the largest organ in the United States when it was built. These benefit recitals are given by eminent organists from greater Boston who kindly donate their services.
Aptly enough for a recital falling on Hallowe’en, the program opened with the Toccata and Fugue in d minor by J.S. Bach (or, more likely, by one of his contemporaries). Janet Hunt, organist at St. John’s Seminary, Brighton, gave a dark and dramatic account of the toccata with growling reed-stops and a freewheeling, improvisatory feel. For the contrasting fugue, upper-work was added and the reeds retired in order to allow the counterpoint to be heard clearly. The scintillating series of cadenzas at the end brought back the reed choruses with the “big guns” saved for the final, thrilling chord. It is a challenge to make this much-played piece sound fresh, but Hunt succeeded.
Heinrich Christensen, organist at King’s Chapel, Boston, contributed some much less familiar music, beginning with two of Robert Schumann’s Sketches, Op. 58 for pedal piano. The first (No. 3), in ABA form, is a rather turbulent affair, and the chosen registration in the A sections with chorus reeds but little upper-work led to less than ideal clarity in the massive cathedral acoustic. The B section, however, full of delicious harmonies and leaving out the reeds, fared better. The second selection (No. 4), also in ABA form, featured a sicilienne rhythm and a fetching tune in the outer sections; Christensen employed a lovely solo reed in the B section. He finished with twentieth-century Danish composer Einar Traerup Sark’s Toccata Primi Toni, using a wide array of tone colors, some pleasingly unconventional, in a persuasive performance.
Three movements of the Suite Médiévale by the famous blind Parisian composer/organist Jean Langlais were handsomely played by Laurence Carson, organist at St. John the Evangelist, Wellesley Hills. Conceived for a setting much like the cathedral, this music was very much at home here. We heard such characteristic Langlais devices as simulated organum and bare octave acclamations, soon filled in by pungent harmonies. Particularly delicious was the Tiento which unusually combined the vox humana and clarinet stops.
Richard Clark, organist at St. Cecilia Parish, Boston, favored us with his own suite Ascent to Freedom. Its five movements are quite accessible, sometimes displaying a French influence. The last three movements made imaginative use of, respectively, the Lutheran chorale If You But Trust in God to Guide You, the spiritual Go Down, Moses, and the hymn How Can I Keep From Singing. There was some compelling musical illustration in the spiritual movement when tortured chromaticism and crunchy reed chords gave way suddenly to diatonic harmonies on the solo clarinet accompanied by string celeste: the effect was like a release from bondage.
After intermission we heard from the cathedral’s titulaire, Leo Abbott, playing the second movement, Choral, of Symphonie II by Louis Vierne, organist of Notre Dame de Paris from 1900 to 1937. This movement places a serene major-mode chorale melody (initially in the pedal and later in soprano/alto range) in opposition to a stormy minor-mode section under-girded by triplet motion in chromatic harmonies. After much alternation between the two opposing forces — light and darkness, if you like — there is a build-up to the peroration. Abbott here gave us a truly symphonic crescendo leading to the thrilling moment when the triplets shifted to the major and the chorale melody triumphed in the heights.
Next came more Schumann, played by Rosalind Mohnsen, organist at Immaculate Conception Parish, Malden. Schumann was only one of many composers to pay tribute to J.S. Bach by using his name musically. (In German nomenclature B is B flat and H is B natural.) Schumann wrote six well-contrasted fugues on B-A-C-H for pedal piano, of which Mohnsen performed the fifth and second. The fifth was a nimble dance on sweet flute stops in triplet rhythms, proving that even a grand cathedral organ can be “light on its feet” when played by a gifted organist. The second fugue’s subject features dotted rhythms and delightfully abrupt pauses that help make it identifiable, even when the polyphony becomes more complex. Mohnsen began with a clear, “à la baroque” registration. Several times she seemed to be building up to the conclusion, only to quiet down again and “delay our gratification.” Finally, after a series of tonic and dominant chords interspersed with dramatic rests, the majestic coda arrived, the final chord capped by the brilliant chorus reeds.
The program had opened with an improvisatory-sounding piece, and it was fitting that it closed with the real thing. A renowned improviser, Peter Krasinski, organist at First Church of Christ, Scientist, Providence, RI, extemporized on the “Dies Irae”, another theme used by many composers. (He also worked in a reference to B-A-C-H early on.) Mr. Krasinski treated the organ orchestrally, using a huge variety of tone colors: cascading flutes, snarling chorus reeds, and a quietly rumbling thirty-two-foot pedal stop, to cite just three. Towards the end we heard a lovely “hymntune” on the string celeste, soon warmed by the vox humana, and gradually, during a stretch of unexpected harmonic progressions, growing to full organ. As Krasinski reached his splendid coda, a sudden burst of sunshine beamed in through the cathedral’s stained glass windows. Perhaps someone beyond the audience was doffing his/her hat to an inspired performer and his
4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]
Was the Holy Cross organ really larger than the Boston Music Hall organ in 1875? Maybe Holy Cross had more pipes, but the Boston Music Hall Organ was certainly larger in terms of tonnage, number of manuals and grandeur of case, etc.
Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 3, 2010 at 3:33 pm
I read this claim on a largely reliable website but, in the heat of the moment, didn’t take time to corroborate it. Having now doublechecked, I find that the older Boston Music Hall organ (now in Methuen) indeed has more stops and ranks of pipes. I regret the error.
Comment by Geoffrey Wieting — November 3, 2010 at 5:10 pm
The Cathedral’s claim to fame on this point is that it was the largest “American built” organ in 1875, not the largest organ in America.
Comment by Leo Abbott — November 4, 2010 at 6:44 pm
Why didn’t you mention Peter Krasinski’s genius incorporation of Mahler’s Second Symphony in his improvisation??
Comment by Music8 — November 5, 2010 at 1:33 pm
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