Considering the upsetting international scene, it was gratifying to see the large audience who turned out Sunday to hear William Porter (of Oberlin, Yale and NEC) inaugurate the newly restored chancel organ of All Saints, Ashmont. E. M. Skinner built his Opus 708 (1929) for a North Adams church which closed its doors in 2008. All Saints acquired the instrument and installed it during the church’s major restoration begun in 2013.
Following celebratory speeches by All Saints’ rector, Rev’d Michael Godderz, and music director Andrew Sheranian, Porter began with a substantial offering of J. S. Bach on the Fisk. The ornate complexity of Fantasia: Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott (BWV 651), with its perfectly illustrates of the term “Baroque;” Porter kept its texture airy and clear while evoking the rushing wind of the titular Holy Spirit. This also served as a demonstration of the improved acoustics of the church, already noted for the quality of the 1995 CB Fisk tracker organ and the choir of men and boys.
Porter followed the grandeur of the Fantasia with the intimacy of organ “chamber music.” Bach’s six organ sonatas are commonly known as trio sonatas due to the equality of their three voices. The simplicity of their textures largely conceals the fact that they are of very considerable difficulty. Porter delivered Sonata I in E-flat Major (BWV 525) with the occasional fumble, but his poise, expressivity, and tasteful ornamentation more than compensated. To the opening movement he brought graceful inflection and gentle beguiling. The c minor middle movement, Adagio, presented as a lovely, mournful song. Porter shunned 16’ pedal tone for greater intimacy, and his subtle rubato in the intertwining voices achieved genuine poignancy. It was a pity that, having repeated the first half, Porter didn’t do likewise for the second. The final movement was merry, even effervescent, 16’ pedal notwithstanding. Its 16th-note passagework skittered delightfully, and I was quite happy to get both repeats.
The Prelude and Fugue in B Minor (BWV 544) rounded off the Bach set. One of the few works in this form that the master composed in his Leipzig years (the great majority of his organ works coming from his earlier Weimar period), the prelude stands apart for its variation of texture, chromaticism, and general harmonic exploration. Porter enjoyed lingering on the most shocking harmonies for maximum effect. His use of a 16’ rather than 8’ plenum in the manuals throughout (full principal chorus with reeds and mixtures) had both advantages and disadvantages: on the one hand, it intensified the chromaticism and dissonances and gave the piece a heroic scale; on the other hand, it made the texture somewhat unclear when the hands were relatively low, and it sometimes obscured the figuration in inner voices. The fugue continued the powerful plenum–minus the manual 16’—to the end. This entailed the loss of playful contrast in the brief episode beginning in A major that seems to come out of nowhere in an especially stern fugue. Nonetheless, Porter rendered the fugue with both clarity and gravitas without any rhythmic rigidity.
After a brief interval, Jonathan Ambrosino, manager of the organ restoration and installation, spoke succinctly about the instrument’s history and singled out for recognition the craftsmen he oversaw. Now at the chancel console, Porter began with chorale preludes by Canadian composer Healey Willan (1880-1968), one of the relatively few 20th-century composers who resisted atonality, serialism, and the other academic musical trends that prevailed. Despite the peculiarity (by today’s standards) of the organ having no stops above 4’ sound (excluding two mixtures), it was quickly apparent that Skinnner—and restorers—knew their business. In combinations ranging from whispery to loud, melodic lines always emerged clearly even in the richest registrations. In Willan’s On the Melody “Nun presiset alle”, Porter coupled the Swell reeds and mixture to the Great diapasons. Whenever he closed the Swell box, the reeds would all but disappear, leaving the buttery diapasons to shine on their own but also allowing for a stirring crescendo back to the full sound. He played this attractive work with empathy and affection, but for me the jewel of the set came in On a Melody by Orlando Gibbons. We had our first hearing of Skinner’s exquisite string celeste while the melody intermittently sang on the lovely Choir clarinet stop. In Porter’s hands the work served as a balm to the soul.
The esteemed English composer and teacher Herbert Howells (1892-1983) wrote two sets of Psalm-Preludes for organ, three in each set. Each work is inspired by a selection from the Book of Psalms. Psalm 34:6 forms the basis for Set 1, No. 1: “The poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.” The work initially wanders desolately through a number of keys before building to a full-organ central climax, then tapering gradually down to a hushed conclusion. The climax exposed the instrument’s chief limitation as a concert organ: it is essentially a “choir organ” designed to accompany. In organ solo literature it lacks the massive power needed when Romantic and post-Romantic scores indicate fff. Nevertheless, Porter built a silky-smooth crescendo and diminuendo, adding (and subtracting) the Skinner’s wealth of 8’ stops in an order that felt organic (no pun intended). The final phrase, resolving to a blissful D major on the beautiful string celeste, was a moment of transcendent beauty.
Improvisation continues to grow in popularity in this country, and Porter has long been recognized as one our most gifted practitioners. He gave us an elegant example based on a snippet of Anglican chant (“Lord, we come to thy table”). Beginning on the soft reed stops, it progressed to a tour of the gentler flues—the Clarabella (an 8’ harmonic flute) was especially delicious. Following some quasi-impressionist treatment of the chant, Porter entered a 6/8 rhythm and built to a climax in something of an homage to Maurice Duruflé. Thereafter, a smooth decrescendo led to an atmospheric ending.
French composer Ermend Bonnal (1880-1944), something of an impressionist organ composer, deserves to be rediscovered. His output is significant, including an organ symphony, but he is represented on recital programs almost entirely by one work, La Vallée de Béhorléguy, au matin, admittedly, a luscious piece. Porter’s musical portrayal of Béhorléguy Valley in the morning made one want to go there. Skinner’s gorgeous flute stops murmured dreamily with occasional distant whispers from the ppp string celeste. The stacking of bare fifths to form the final chord—and the very gentle 16’ rumble below—was magical.
Like Bonnal, Henri Mulet (1878-1967) wrote at least has several pieces that find their way onto recital programs. His harmonic language is more conservative, however, closer to Charles-Marie Widor than to Louis Vierne. Porter tackled Mulet’s most popular work, the toccata Tu es petra (Thou art the rock) from the Byzantine Sketches collection. The work is largely hammered chords with melody creeping in from time to time in the soprano. Porter’s very fast tempo—coupled with the fact that much of the piece is played on the Swell with box closed—often obscured the chord repetitions. However, the smothered Swell reeds gave a feeling of restrained power that was exciting in its own right. And when he moved to the Great and finally opened the Swell and Choir boxes, it was still more so, an emphatic ending to a fine recital.
The setup of grand orgue and orgue de choeur is common in France but, as Porter noted, a rarity in this country. It is perhaps a further boon when, as here, the two instruments have the complementary aesthetics of different builders and time periods. The artist reminded us how much at home Bach is on the Fisk, but also imaginatively showed us the surprisingly wide range of the smaller Skinner. If this church already featured on the short list for visiting organists, the addition of Skinner’s Opus 708 can only serve to raise its stature.