Bringing fiery and virtuosic playing to spicy repertoire, organist Faythe Freese managed to heat up a cold winter’s night on Friday at St. Cecilia’s Church in the Back Bay with her recital for the Boston Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. Having studied with a number of eminent performers and pedagogues in the U.S. (Indiana University) as well as France, Germany, and the U.K., Freese is currently Professor of Organ at the University of Alabama and a recitalist in some demand. Playing the Smith & Gilbert | Nobscot (1999), one of Boston’s most exciting organs in a wonderfully opulent acoustic, she offered a stimulating mixture of compositional styles considerably more varied than the composers’ dates would seem to indicate: two of the four were born in 1870 and another in 1873.
Opening with something of a thunderclap, Freese first played the Fantasy on Wie schön leucht’t uns der Morgenstern [How beautifully the morning star shines on us], Op. 40, No. 1, by Max Reger (1873-1916). Characteristically, the work’s introduction demonstrated the enormous dynamic range of the German romantic organ Reger wrote for, with abrupt alternations of ffff and pppp. Soon enough, though, came more gradual crescendi and diminuendi, effected by addition/subtraction of stops as well as use of the swell box, and the artist made these admirably smooth. The chorale melody emerged gently on the clarinet stop with a mildly chromatic, restless accompaniment surrounding it. Through a sequence of variations featuring plain and elaborated versions of the hymntune, Freese displayed the wealth of colors available on the St. Cecilia organ, maintaining even balances in both softer and louder passages. In the concluding fugue, she may have necessarily made minor concessions in clarity of contrapuntal detail but more than compensated for them with dramatic sweep, building up excitement for the climactic final entry of the chorale theme as it boomed forth magnificently in the pedal line. The double trills and unusual harmonization of the final chords made for a galvanic last chorale phrase and coda, the conclusion marred only slightly when a single voice of the eleven (!) in the final chord refused to release with the rest.
A set of three pieces followed, The Freese Collection, by Pamela Decker (b. 1955). The composer drew inspiration from three artworks which Freese owned, created by the Alabama artist known as Nall, a protegé of Salvador Dali. Our programs included photographs of all three. To quote Decker’s notes, “[t]he titles appear in three different languages–German, Spanish, and French . . . [which] represent compositional and stylistic features . . . [of] music from these regions.” Though Decker may not have consistently succeeded in making such parallels perceptible to the ear, her music ranges from listenable to entirely engaging. The first work, Augenmusik (Eye-Music), reflects Nall’s adding of a double-eye design to a stylized violin (e.g., its bridge is painted with multiple hues not unlike the “Play Me” spinet pianos formerly in various outdoor locales around Boston). A couple minutes into this piece, the rebellious note from the end of the Reger fantasy became truly obstinate, and the performer had to stop and appeal for assistance to repair the faulty key. After this was accomplished several minutes later, Freese began again. Augenmusik’s intervallic pattern was intended to “outline” the shape of a human eye, while its harmonies were often redolent of jazz, rather like the music of Leo Sowerby. Though the performer remained in the rear organ gallery, the main console there is able to play the much smaller antiphonal organ towards the front of the sanctuary. In Lirio e amapola (Iris and Poppy) Freese exploited this feature in a delectable dialogue of string celeste in front and flute in back. The two sound-colors traded the melody back and forth and leapfrogged each other. The source of the third work is “a striking cross that Nall fashioned from organ pipes.” The title, La croix de foi is a pun when translated: literally, “the cross of [Christian] faith” but also “the cross of Faythe”. Despite having the only religious title of the three, this work frequently utilizes a samba rhythm, though, in accordance with its name, the harmonic language is Gallic and its toccata figuration in the French Romantic tradition. With her vigorous rhythm and powerful technique put to musical ends, the recitalist made this an effective and enjoyable display piece.
The next piece was a suite from L’Orgue Mystique by Charles Tournemire (1870-1939), a monumental work described by its composer as “51 offices [i.e., suites] of the liturgical year, inspired by Gregorian chant and freely paraphrased.” Each suite consists of five movements: Prelude to the Introit, Offertory, Elevation, Communion, and final piece (the last variously titled). Many of the 255 movements sound sufficiently mystical, even arcane, as to discomfit the average listener; however, with persistence, a player can uncover a considerable number of fine pieces and even masterpieces. Such persistence being rare in the headlong rush of modern life, one infrequently hears even individual extracts from L’Orgue Mystique, and even more rarely, an entire suite, but Freese generously shared the whole of the 25th, “In Festo Pentecostes,” and made it bewitching rather than befuddling. The very brief Prelude treated us to luscious, even voluptuous, harmonies accompanying the chant melody sung by the clarinet stop. The Offertory presented thought-provoking music, played sympathetically, but its chief fascination was its unconventional registration, comparable to no other composer’s: Tournemire quite often specified stop-combinations which on paper look bizarre but, given an intelligent performer and an idiomatic organ, work amazingly well–as happened on this occasion. The brief Elevation also utilized a singular registration and featured improvisatory, quasi-canonic writing in octaves over a pedal point that persisted through the whole piece. In the Communion, the maverick composer declined the opportunity to depict the familiar Pentecost text concerning a violent wind through the church, opting instead for a gentle atmosphere; the movement is built on a structure of fourths and fifths–a modernized organum–on which interjections of more colorful harmonies appear and recede repeatedly. The final piece (Fantaisie-choral in the score, though listed simply as Pièce terminale on the program) has an ABAB form, with the swirling sextuplet figurations of the A sections perhaps depicting the Pentecostal wind while the B sections evoke a majestic procession with their much slower chordal progressions. At the climax the composer calls for full organ for the first and only time in the suite, making the Veni, Sancte Spiritus thunder forth on the pedal Bombardes 16’ and 32’. All the more wonderfully unexpected, then, was the final return of B, slowing and quieting to a mystical pianissimo conclusion on an enigmatic dominant seventh chord—an unanswered question.
Moving back into the domain of familiar bravura showpieces, Freese rounded off the program with the Final of the sixth (and last) organ symphony of Louis Vierne (1870-1937). Despite the triumphs of worldwide fame as a performer and being the titular organist of the world’s most storied cathedral, Notre Dame de Paris, for 37 years, the composer’s life was largely filled with tragedy, and his characteristically tortured, chromatic harmonic language often reflects his numberless griefs. But this ultimate symphonic movement (Vierne planned a seventh symphony but never began it) is an exception: chromaticism is ever-present but here participating in a general outburst of joy. Our program notes aptly described the piece as featuring “pomp, splendor and show-biz razzmatazz,” and the artist provided these. Long chains of broken fourths in the pedal simulated orchestral timpani, heightening the excitement. The calmer middle section introduced a second theme, and Freese allowed us to savor the delicious salmagundi of Vierne’s harmonies. Soon after the return of the first theme, the two themes begin sounding together in the outer voices just before the organist plunges into brilliant B major pedal scales up and down, covering most of the compass of the pedalboard. As in the Reger, though, the experienced performer’s discreetly lengthened pauses in key places allowed the complex chromaticism to diffuse enough to avoid muddiness in this reverberant room as she unflaggingly brought the piece to a blazing, jazzy ending.
The audience’s exultant response to this powerful account of the Vierne Final led to one encore: the Toccata from the Toccata and Fugue of the young Jonathan Orwig (b. 1964). Beginning on a chorus of flutes with staccato accompaniment and sustained melody, it seemed more in the character of a scherzo—particularly with a slower, legato “trio” section on foundation stops. With the return of the opening material, some mixtures and reeds were added, and ultimately there was a slightly comically abrupt ending, fortissimo. As an example of unusual, rather daring choice of repertoire, the careful matching of said pieces to organ and room, and of course, a masterful performance, one would be hard pressed indeed to surpass this excellent recital.