IN: Reviews

On Fourth Try, Church Gets Right Organ


Ken Cowan (Lisa-Marie Mazzucco photo)

Over the past week, greater Boston audiences have had the pleasure of welcoming a distinguished new organ—Schoenstein & Company’s Opus 172 at the Church of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill—to the ranks of the already numerous fine instruments in our midst. This series has included such notable events as the organ’s dedication on October 19th, a choral evensong on the 21st, and a demonstration of the instrument by Schoenstein president Jack Bethards and the church’s music director Michael S. Murray. On Friday night esteemed concert organist Ken Cowan performed the inaugural recital placing emphasis on Romantic organ literature and orchestral transcriptions but also including works by J. S. Bach and a living Canadian composer. As one would expect, this maiden voyage masterfully displayed the impressive range of colors and dynamics the organ is capable of as well as Cowan’s ease in switching among multiple styles and periods, while almost always maintaining a perfect balance between legato and articulation.

Thanks to Schoenstein’s judicious and effective borrowing (and lending) of stops (a term meaning that ranks, or portions of ranks can be assigned to more than one division), the relatively modest 25-stop, three-manual organ produced a substantial, very well-spoken diapason tone beginning with a marvelously ponderous open 32’, continuing through six 8’ examples, to well supported upperwork, while not stinting on a pleasantly surprising variety of coloristic stops.

Cowan commenced with an arresting account of Widor’s Sixth Organ Symphony’s first movement. He created authentically French Romantic sounds with an occasional trace of an English accent. The reed choruses, with just enough flue upperwork to lend clarity, were rich and dark, especially telling at the slower central major cadence. The performer built up excitement as the piece progressed, culminating in a stirring full-organ recapitulation that had both brilliance and authority.

Speaking to the audience briefly about the organ and his programming aims, Cowan then gave useful background details about his next selection. The Improvisation on “Nearer, My God, To Thee” of Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877-1933) was composed in the aftermath of the Titanic disaster of 1912. The unifying melody is Lowell Mason’s familiar hymntune in which the composer found unsuspected possibilities while depicting the events of the night of April 14th-15th that stunned the world. We heard the ship’s orchestra supplying jaunty after-dinner music, experienced the collision with the iceberg, progressed through increasing agitation to the climactic final plunge, followed by an ethereal final benediction. Cowan deployed registrational wizardry and a keen sense of storytelling. Through the sequence of variations on the hymn, Karg-Elert’s harmony occasionally prefigures the quasi-jazz beloved of Leo Sowerby and the emotional pitch approaches bathos, the artist’s imaginative but respectful rendering never allowed it to cross the line, and his subtle pointing up of the hymn held the diffuse structure together. Following the great liner’s foundering, an otherworldly coda began with a Messiaenesque tone cluster on string celestes and soon concluded in consolatory manner as the final chord evanesced upward a note at a time, souls ascending to heaven and holding the audience rapt.

The recitalist spoke enthusiastically about the composer of the next work, who is also his friend and fellow Canadian, Rachel Laurin (b. 1961). Her piece, the Etude-Caprice Le rire de Belbébuth (Beelzebub’s Laugh) is full of diabolical effects—and fiendish technical challenges for the player! —as well as opportunities for outlandish stop combinations. As Beelzebub is the Lord of the Flies, we were not surprised to hear devilish laughter and a persistent insect’s buzzing while being chased. Laurin convincingly combines French Romanticism, occasional polyphony, and the “organ impressionism” akin to some of Louis Vierne’s Pièces de Fantaisie. Here too Cowan’s technical mastery, skill of musical narrative, and creative use of a relatively small palette of colors were compelling and gave the impression of a much larger instrument. Skin-crawling chromatic buzzing, mischievous humor, and copious contrasts of sounds and dynamics combined in a tour de force. Even after the climax (an unsuccessful swat?) on the high-pressure Tuba stop, though dynamics were much reduced, the demonic energy never flagged, ending with a sardonic staccato chortle.

Cowan next launched vigorously into Tu Es Petra (Thou Art The Rock) by Henri Mulet (1878-1967), a French Romantic toccata par excellence, with hammered chordal accompaniment on smothered reeds over a legato pedal melody. Cowan’s rock-solid rhythm generated electricity though at his fast tempo the quasi-legato playing of the alternating chords didn’t yield the ultimate frisson. Moreover, the emphasis placed on the melody allowed it occasionally to obscure the chordal figurations. However, in the concluding page where the tonality shifts from stormy minor to triumphant major amid swirling full-organ arpeggios, the artist brought us to another commanding conclusion.

As a demonstration of the opus 172’s polyphonic capabilities, Cowan chose J. S. Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, a superlative set of variations over a stately pedal ostinato and a rare combination of heart and brain in one composition. Here the performer opted for leaner 8’ sounds and more apparent use of upperwork (4’, 2-2/3’, 2’, and mixtures). In the quiet early variations we also heard individual 8’ flute and diapason stops. Despite the ever-increasing complexity of Bach’s manual figuration, Cowan’s registration always subtly highlighted the repeating pedal melody, giving cohesion to the whole. The concluding fugue does double duty as an extended final variation, uniting the passacaglia theme with a new fugue subject and countersubject. Offering some relief after the sternly continuous C minor of the whole passacaglia, the fugue brings back its main theme in other keys for the first time, including the relative major, and Cowan pointed this up with lighter, more intimate colors for all three melodies. With the return of the minor came increasing drama and contrapuntal elaboration. The player made easy work of the also-heightened technical demands and textural complexity before a stupefying Neapolitan sixth chord, grand pause, and the famous thundering coda.

After scaling this Himalayan peak of the Baroque literature, Cowan returned to the Romantic period now in the genre of transcriptions. Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, one of his most popular pieces, began life as a song but is best known as an orchestral piece. Spectacularly transcribed by Edwin Lemare, it also became popular with organ virtuosi from the late 19th century on. On this occasion, Cowan supplied his own arrangement which bids fair to top even the Lemare for hair-raising gymnastic feats at the console and even “improves on” Saint-Saëns with several added bridge passages not in the original score. As in the Laurin piece, we have a diabolical master of ceremonies (heard near the beginning tuning his “fiddle” with a tritone—the interval known during the Renaissance as Diabolus in Musica), and indeed the piece is largely an infernal waltz with plenty of opportunities to explore orchestral stops and display the performer’s  dazzling technique: rapid, slithering chains of chromatic thirds accompanying the melody and accelerating chords approaching the climax. As the excitement reaches its peak, though, day breaks and disperses all the ghostly revels, Cowan created a very convincing bell effect by cleverly rolling upper harmonics. Then scampering quietly away, the wraiths disappeared abruptly with two arpeggiated staccato chords.

Though it would have been all but impossible to surpass the excitement of the Danse Macabre, the final piece and encore, to my mind, equaled it and, as well-known works, comparably entranced the audience. Surely the best-known passage in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, The Ride of the Valkyries depicts the Nordic mythological equivalent of the Amazons, airborne and heroically singing. In Edwin Lemare’s transcription, the powerful melody is assigned to the feet, giving it power and gravitas, while the fluttering figuration in the hands keeps the proceedings aloft. Cowan produced some impressively elongated crescendos and diminuendos and orchestral effects that left me rarely missing heroic female singers as often happens with lesser transcriptions. At the earth-shaking conclusion, the audience rose to its feet and insisted on an encore. Cowan gave us a rousing rendition of John Philip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever (transcriber uncredited but quite possibly Cowan himself again) complete with repeated piccolo solo and exuberant full marching band beneath.

As a propitious inauguration and dazzling demonstration of the new organ’s range, one could hardly ask for more. One hopes for many more recitals to follow in addition to the instrument’s stellar contributions to liturgical music every week.

Ed. Note:  When it opened in 1915, the Church of the Redeemer housed a Kimball, Smallman & Frazee (we think), which gave way first to Möller op 9475 in 1961, and then Noack op. 112 in 1989. Noack removed, restored, and improved its instrument for St. Paul Chapel of Trinity Wall Street.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

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