Now 141 years old, Hook & Hastings’s large, groundbreaking organ for Boston’s voluminous Holy Cross Cathedral debuted in 1876 with a musical baptism by four notable organists. Over the recent decades, longtime Cathedral organist Leo Abbott has been presenting recitals by multiple organists to celebrate its anniversary. This year’s birthday recital comes also marks the cathedral’s imminent partial closure for major repairs and refurbishment; it will be at least a year before this organ speaks again.
The dedication in 1876 featured works by the expected Bach, Schumann, and Mendelssohn as well as near-contemporary Alexandre Guilmant Gounod, Lemmens, and Lysburg, the 36-year-old George Whiting, and transcriptions and improvisations. Such eclecticism has abided. Bach, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Guilmant were absent on this program, but Buxtehude stood in for Bach (two players), Brahms for Schumann, no fewer than five French composers for Guilmant, and two living composers for Whiting.
Janet Hunt opened with three Buxtehude works. We know that the composer had pedal reeds, probably not quite as boisterous as the ones used to open his familiar Prelude, Fugue and Chaconne in C, although the Fugue countered it with a light registration and the Chaconne danced convincingly. Two chorale preludes followed, Ein Feste Burg flowing at a relaxed tempo with a fairly light registration, and Von Gott will ich nicht lassen on a fuller sound, the sporadic melodic pedal phrases coming through with just the right amount of contrast.
Early 20th-century French came in three varied selections played by Rodger Vine. Duruflé’s flowing Hommage à Jean Gallon, a pleasing melodic work that should really be better-known, sang along convincingly, featuring a strong solo flute line, and was followed by Langlais’s Hommage à Frescobaldi variations, cleanly displaying a variety of colorful sounds. The youngest of the group was Jeanne Joulain, whose Prelude pour la Feté des Rameaux, while as firmly rooted in the French Romantic tradition as the other two composers, displayed also some characteristics verging on the impressionistic. Opening strongly, it soon settled down to a forward-moving tempo on a fairly foundational registration, perhaps suggesting both the joyful and the solemn aspects of Palm Sunday.
Two works by composers born after 1950 revealed retrospective character. At the 1976 AGO convention we endured some awful experimental compositions in the name of contemporary music. Today there is off-the-beaten-track new music, of course, but it’s of the sort that uses instruments with understanding and encourages a second hearing, and even has devotees. And there is some that is frankly retrospective, staying within the bounds of traditional tonality and forms while using them in fresh ways. A Short Prayer for the Bishop of Greenland by Adrian Vernon Fish and Toccata Landais by Andreas Willscher, both played by Carson Cooman (himself a composer of no mean accomplishment), fall into this category. Fish’s rather sunny work employs mostly low-key if not always conventional variations, encouraging contrasting registrations and employing such evocative devices as a bagpipe-like drone and a quasi-chorale movement, yet not without brightness of concept. Willscher’s work again has a traditional flavor, rather unabashedly reflecting French toccata style, with a milder middle section in a different key, and the usual splashy ending. But it too felt a novel twist on an old form. Both works were sensitively and convincingly performed.
A pair of large works plus a concluding improvisation concluded the afternoon. Abbott knows and uses the instrument better than anyone else; he also has long familiarity with the organs of Cavaillé-Coll, having performed on them in France on a number of occasions. And he has learned how to “play” a large reverberant room, bringing all this knowledge together sensitively in a smashing performance of the Allegro Vivace of Widor’s Fifth Symphony, a work of contrasts between whimsical dances and majestic slow segments, ending with a brilliant finale, all with a registrational flair more Parisian than Bostonian.
Rosalind Mohnsen is no stranger to the French organ aesthetic either, and took on Roger-Ducasse’s daunting Pastorale with confidence. Pastorales in general are really “storm” pieces, so this one properly begins with a calm shepherd’s-pipe movement, flutes against strings, before crescendoing into the boisterous central storm portion, which eventually diminishes into the sunny concluding section with village choir singing in the distance and a hint of the return of the pipe. Roger-Ducasse treats the idiom with greater complexity than most other composers, even Franck, and Mohnsen pulled it off with panache.
Peter Krasinski had the last word in one of his inimitable improvisations, this time based on a traditional “Alleluia” theme. Beginning in full registration, the theme soon moves to a quieter melodic statement on strings and flutes. It becomes altered as it moves around, appearing in longer notes before becoming briefly fugal, eventually transitioning into a gradual crescendo that works up to a blazing conclusion, complete with reedy pedal cadenzas. This made a fitting conclusion to a program that again proved the versatility of one of Boston’s most venerable distinguished organs. But we will have to wait at least a year before we hear its voice again.