Stuart Forster, Director of Music and Organist for Christ Church at Harvard Square, gave a recital last night on the Great Organ of the Methuen Memorial Music Hall as part of the hall’s ongoing Wednesday night concert series. The colorful and varied evening of music ranged from chorale preludes to orchestral transcriptions, to Arthur Sullivan and Forster’s own works.
The concert was warmly received, although it would have been nice to see it better attended; the first temperate evening in a week of wild weather probably accounting for why half of the seats were empty. This did allow one to take in halves of the show from the floor and the balcony, with the latter being clearly acoustically superior.
This reviewer, a professional musician by trade and an organist by happenstance, had been repeatedly told of the unforgetability of one’s first experience upon entering the unique music palace purpose-built to hold the massive instrument it continues to showcase. And those were wise words indeed. For newcomers, turning the corner from the narrow entranceway, where plain brick turns to baroque plaster flights, and encountering the magnificent instrument is an experience nothing can prepare one for. It’s akin to turning a corner in a cave and finding a sleeping dragon, giving a sense that one is close—perhaps too close—to something extraordinarily powerful.
The hall for the most part tames this dragon very well though, and the experience is about as satisfying as hearing a grand organ in a grand church, where one would be ten times the distance away. We forgive whatever minor sonic shortcomings the hall creates for the ability to stare directly at the marvelous machine, and the artist, throughout the performance.
Forster opened with the first movement of Basil Harwood’s Sonata No. 1 in C-sharp Minor, a work firmly in the grand romantic organ tradition. The acute leaping intervals of the principal subject melt into soft strings of the second, but full-throated heroic strains return rapidly. The emphatic ending, which retains the minor tonality, displayed the full fff breadth of the instrument.
Following this, and played as a set, came Bach’s Prelude on Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele and Krebs’s (a J.S. student) Fantasia sopra ‘Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele’. Joining these two works underscored their musical and philosophical connections: the ornamented “gladness” effervesced through the florid accompaniments of their expertly set chorale tunes.
Forster’s own transcription of the slow movement from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony succeeded more in timbral subtlety than musical effectiveness, owing both to the inability of a wind instrument, even the king of instruments, to imitate the endless diversity of a string section sound and the requisite touch of organ articulation interfering with the rhythmic pulse in what is in essence a tempo-driven movement. The registration choices were creative though, being effective even when not following literally Beethoven’s orchestration, and in particular was able to show the final chord as a bookend to the initial one better than most orchestral renditions.
After Alfred Herbert Brewer’s Marche Héroïque, which delightfully showed off the full forces of the imposing machine, the second half continued with another paring: short works by Howells and Wesley, both titans of 20th– and 19th-century English church music. Howells’ Master Tallis’ Testament made a perfect palate cleanser; a clarinet solo unfolded organically over billowing string chords, rising to a full climax which recalls its intimate beginnings before a quiet close. Wesley’s Choral Song and Fugue featured a double fugue wherein the subjects were presented subsequently and, once combined, were expertly crafted by Forster to impressive heights. This was followed by Sullivan’s The Lost Chord, an old stand-by to be sure, but the organ grew so majestic at the end that one would believe the chord had been found again.
The concert closed with modern works. Derek Bourgeois’ Serenade, an ostinato-based carefree tune in mixed meter (mostly 11/8) started almost as an island-infused folk tune and climaxed testing the tensile strength of its mode a-la-Boléro. Forster placed his own two settings for Advent (bizarre for June but in celebration of one of their recent publications) at the end of the evening: a Meditation on Veni Emmanuel and a toccata on the hymntune “Helmsley” (“Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending”). Both were well constructed and passionately performed; ethereal chords adorned the solo melody of Veni Emmanuel, and “Helmsley” contained all the fancy finger and foot work one would expect from a proper toccata. The latter surprisingly stayed in harmonically dark places for much of its duration, but did end triumphantly, although perhaps with a few too many repetitive stabbing chords.