Concert organist Nathan Laube’s entertaining and apposite selections brilliantly showcased the large and impressive Nelson Barden – E. M Skinner Organ which surrounds the congregation at the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans on Cape Cod. On Sunday afternoon, Laube left no doubts that he possesses the compleat armament of a successful practitioner: registrational acumen, velocity, drive, courage to play quietly, and most importantly, mature taste. He graciously oriented the audience before each piece in addition to penning informative written notes. He also directed the audience to the instrument’s wealth of color; virtuosic, but deferential, he gave pride of place in the afternoon’s proceedings to the colorful instrument, creating an unmistakable partnership of performer, builder, re-creator, and composers.
The 1920s-style symphonic organ, which contains restored pipework from 17 E. M. Skinner instruments, stands 62% complete. Skinner designed pipes which could capture orchestral instruments such as English horn, French horn, Tuba as well as many types of flute and string sound in an astonishingly convincing manner. The printed stoplist indicates that two large divisions and a small one are still to come, but according to Barden, these will add more to the color resources than to the power of an instrument that already reaches a satisfying 90 dBA.
The pipes speak into the church from chambers above the two side aisles which stretch over 100 feet down both sides of the nave. The abundance of sound and also the quadraphonic effect of the various divisions captivated this listener. The church’s favorable acoustics result from the narrow and high shape of the worship space and the hard surfaces of tile floor and walls; the disposition of the instrument over both long side aisles also places pipes near every listener.
Laube began with the first movement of Organ Symphonie No. 5 from Opus 42 by the French composer Charles Marie Widor (1844 – 1937). Its series of variations explores the organ’s ability to present real organ literature of the French symphonic style, giving ample opportunity to explore 19th-century Cavaillé-Coll sound. Laube shaped the phrases, sometimes in exaggerated manner, but always to musical effect.
Pastorale, by French composer Jean Roger-Ducasse (1873 – 1954), made a perfect vehicle to present the wealth of seemingly limitless flute sounds (and occasional English horn) in this evocative pastoral vision of the French countryside.
Healey Willan’s brilliant Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue, must surely be the masterwork of this Canadian composer who lived from 1865 – 1942. Following the Introduction, which gives us a foretaste, it settles into a quiet bass line, the structural groundwork of the Passacaglia. Subsequent variations take place in a jaw-dropping buildup, culminating before the Fugue with powerful Trumpets, Trombones and Tubas. Skinner first acquired these pipes from the British organ builder Henry Willis on a trip to England in the 1920s. Laube had pointed out that these pipes “sound just like St. Paul’s in London.” The Fugue followed, building to the same imposing reeds.
Skinner admired the work of Henry Willis greatly and was no doubt overjoyed to acquire these reeds. Skinner had also given Willis the details of the innovative construction of some of his own special stops.
A brief fiery Concert Overture for organ by Alfred Hollins (1865 – 1942) began the second half; in Laube’s use of the organ, one could have imagined it as an orchestral transcription. That it sounded so idiomatic on the Transfiguration instrument makes sense after one learned from Laube’s notes that the blind, English composer-recitalist made a 65-city US tour on behalf of the Skinner Organ Company in 1925.
The Hollins set the scene magnificently for the grand finale, Wagner’s Overture to Tannhaüser. The transcription or arrangement carried three by-lines: Samuel Warren, Edwin Lemare and Nathan Laube. Beginning with the Pilgrim’s Chorus on French horns, the overture concludes with a veritable apotheosis of weighty Wagnerian splendor, whetting our appetite for the entire opera, and inspiring the grateful and demonstrative listeners.
One might expect that a composite of 17 organs could result in an awkward miscellany, but having honed his historian-restorer-visionary skills over 60 years, Barden combined these diverse elements into a unified artistic expression, seemingly as a fulfillment of Skinner’s vision. His many restorations include the American Classic Æolian-Skinner at the Church of the Advent in Boston, the John R. Silber Symphonic Organ at Boston University, and Pierre Dupont’s 146 rank, 10,010 pipe Æolian at Longwood Gardens. Barden basked with obvious pride during the proceedings. The accomplished, versatile Laube, like all great artists, is sui generis. Both made indelible and essential impressions.
Lois Regestein is a veteran local organist and currently director pro tem of the Old West Organ Society. She holds degrees from Oberlin College and the Yale School of Music.