If there was any doubt, David Higgs, who is head of the organ department at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, proved that he is one of the greatest living American organists in his performance at the Rice Memorial Aeolian-Skinner organ in All Saints Church, Worcester. His ability was on full display on September 30 as the Worcester chapter of the American Guild of Organists hosted a free recital by Higgs in a program of German, French, and American organ works.The four-manual organ sounded marvelous in its impressive Episcopal home.
Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542 opened the recital, and Higgs’s ability to adapt to the instrument and conditions of the performance space was immediately evident. The sanctuary was very live (I calculated the decay time of the loudest final chords at just over a second), yet Higgs kept the fastest scales of the Fantasia and the most complex counterpoint of the Fugue as clear as possible. It was a delight to hear the greatest composer for the organ on such a superb instrument executed by one of the finest organists anywhere.
Harmonies du soir, Op. 72, No.1 by Sigfrid Karg-Elert, a colorful piece so typical of the late-romantic French composers, followed on the program. The French have always loved exploring the varied timbres that these instruments can achieve, and Higgs’s registrations were extremely evocative. His use of the expression pedals, which are the only method of making a smooth crescendo or diminuendo on an organ, was so effective that at times it sounded as though we were listening to the recital from outside of the church, only to experience a natural crescendo of sound as we entered through the sanctuary doors.
William Bolcom’s Gospel Prelude on What a Friend We Have in Jesus, the only work by a living composer on the program, provided a fun contrast within the more “serious” repertoire of the evening. In a Southern gospel-style tinged with tasteful dissonances, including effective glissandi rarely found in classical organ works, Bolcom once again brought a popular style into the realm of classical music as only he can. Perhaps only his good friend William Albright was able to bridge the classical organ and popular music worlds as effectively. My only disappointment was that Higgs didn’t play some of the other eleven preludes in Bolcom’s set!
The first half of the concert ended with the showpiece Variations de Concert by Joseph Bonnet, a French organist who founded the organ program at Eastman where Higgs is currently employed. I’d not known of this composer, and after hearing this piece I’m sure that he must have been more well known as a performer than a composer. Higgs informed us prior to his playing that this piece was written when Bonnet was twenty-four years old, and it was exactly what one would expect to hear from young prodigy out to impress the world with his technical talents: a true finger-and-foot-buster that I wouldn’t mind never hearing again. Higgs performed it as well as anyone could, pulling out all the stops to show the full power of this massive instrument and dashing off the organ-istic feats with no signs of stress. The piece even included a cadenza variation for the foot pedals alone, rife with devilish double-thirds for the fleet-footed Higgs. (Double-thirds are dreaded by many pianists, but now imagine doing them with your feet!)
Following intermission, the Bolero de concert was a whimsical piece that seemed fitting for a composer whose name, Louis-James-Alfred Lefébure-Wély, makes me laugh ever time I attempt to pronounce it. This work was made very cute by Higgs’s extreme ritardandos at the end of sections, really giving the sense that it must have been arranged for, and played by, a fairground organ at some point.
Maurice Duruflé’s substantial Suite for Organ, Op. 5 rounded off the program in grand style. Higgs explained (probably hyperbolically) that he took “a thousand hours to learn” the final movement, “Toccata,” even while the composer himself regretted ever writing the work and refused to hear it performed because of the “bad” main theme. Yes, I’ll agree that the theme isn’t very inspiring, and probably nobody should spend that much time learning it; nevertheless Higgs’s assured and dynamic performance was a strong and fitting way to end a truly world-class organ recital.