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Cathedral Reverberates with Stately Organ Tones

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Some few months after completing an extensive two-year inside and out remodeling, Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross hosted its first organ recital in over two years. Sunday’s recitalist, Music Director Emeritus Leo Abbott, had retired last October after 32 years. He knows this organ’s inner workings more intimately than anyone, and thus constituted the obvious choice for the celebratory 27th-annual benefit concert. His successor Richard J. Clark paid generous tribute to him, telling us how, at the time of Abbott’s appointment in 1986, the 1875 E. & G. G. Hook & Hastings Organ, opus 801, widely recognized as one of the greatest 19th-century American, had been all but unplayable for many years. Abbott’s vision and unstinting dedication willed the organ’s resurrection over his long tenure. For further details of this remarkable story as well as the cathedral’s remodeling, please see our recent article HERE.

Abbott launched his program in arresting fashion with Hymne d’Actions de grâces,“Te Deum”(Hymn of Thanksgiving, “Te Deum”) of Jean Langlais (1907-1991), as crashing fff chords several times interrupted the opening smothered-reed octaves to especially vivid effect in the added resonance of the huge sanctuary’s volume. As the work heated up, an energetic ostinato accompanied the chordal theme with momentary surges of sound through the performer’s manipulation of the swell box. The effect achieved something between Langlais’s organ, the medium-sized Cavaillé-Coll of Ste. Clotilde, Paris, and the same builder’s immense masterpieces at Notre Dame de Paris and St. Sulpice. In this context, it is worth noting that the Holy Cross organ’s Great trumpet stops (8’and 4’) came from Parisian builder, Henri Zimmerman, lending an authentic French touch but blending seamlessly with Hook & Hastings’s work.

In a nod to opus 801’s history, Abbott next played a work heard in the organ’s 1876 dedicatory recital, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Fantasie in G Major (aka Pièce d’orgue), BWV 572. This instrument’s lush romantic timbres and the room’s vast acoustic would not be ideal for Bach’s more intricate and fast-moving counterpoint, but the Fantasie works well thanks to its one- and two-voiced texture in the outer sections and the gravity of its polyphonic central section. The lighter first section and extended cadenza third section were playful and brilliant, respectively; the slower central section proceeded majestically but not ponderously, and the texture retained clarity throughout.

Beginning with his 1829 revival of the Matthew Passion, Felix Mendelssohn, more than any other, renewed enthusiasm in Germany for Bach’s music. Abbot chose Mendelssohn’s Organ Sonata, Op. 65, No. 3, whose first movement arguably limns the connection between the two composers via a triptych. Its first and third sections, in A major, are exuberant, homophonic, and Romantic, while the second, in A minor, is more Baroque in style with rigorous fugal writing and the introduction of the Lutheran chorale Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (From Deep Need I Cry to Thee). Abbott skillfully contrasted powerful but embracing sounds in the outer sections with a leaner, more transparent one in the fugue. Mendelssohn requests a very extended and gradual increase of tempo and dynamics (over nearly 60 bars) in the latter part of the fugue, and four bars of thundering 16th notes in the pedals were perhaps the only time when some detail was lost to the room’s reverberation. Nonetheless, this fiery passage made a most convincing transition back to the Romantic, which in the movement’s final section contained some echoes of the fugue’s subject (Mendelssohn pressing Bach to his bosom?). The second and concluding movement caressed the ear with sublimely sweet flutes 8’and 4’. Abbott played expressively, subtly lingering at key harmonic shifts and paring the sound down to a lovely, intimate 8’flute at the end.

Though César Franck’s Three Chorales [along with his L’Organiste, a set of harmonium pieces in all the keys] were his musical last will and testament (finished less than three weeks before his death in November 1890), the third opens with agitated toccata-like figurations before the sustained and world-weary first theme enters. Following some development of this theme, a second arrives on the Swell 8’ Cornopean and Oboe, a consolingly warm sound with subtle swell box shadings and gentle rubatos. An exquisite alternation of the two themes followed, the first celestially high in the right hand, the second in the middle of the texture in the left hand. Over the course of increasing 16th-note figuration, the artist created a lengthy, smooth orchestral crescendo, which culminated in the first theme in grand full-organ right-hand chords accompanied by the opening’s toccata figures in the left hand. From this storm and stress emerged a victorious major final chord that resounded stirringly in the great space.

Venturing into more arcane repertoire, Abbott next gave us the final part of the Triptico del Buen Pastor (Triptych of the Good Shepherd) by Jesús Guridi (1886-1961). The composer was of Spanish Basque origin, studied at the Schola Cantorum in Paris, and adopted a late Romantic idiom influenced by Richard Wagner but also by Basque culture and his younger French contemporaries. El Buen Pastor (1953) opened with gentle chords on string celeste with a Messiaen-like fragrance, soon followed by a folk-like melody on solo reed, and finally a soft reed throughout the texture, perhaps evoking a shepherd with a pastorale on the oboe. The work later grew to a mountainous sound; a fanfare-like section with antiphonal effects included notable echoes of Langlais’s Pasticcio and the Hymne d’Actions de Grâces, “Te Deum” we heard earlier. As a final clever subversion of expectations, the work, which had largely been diatonic with Contemporary touches, grew to a dissonant climax and finished on a full-organ tone cluster.

Brighter tones and light at Holy Cross

Reverting to late Romantic style, the performer offered two popular and strongly contrasted works of Louis Vierne, titulaire at Notre Dame de Paris from 1900 to 1937. The slow movement (Romance) from his Symphonie IV is often regarded as his loveliest, in a lush D-flat major (as far from the outer movements’G minor as can be) and featuring some of Vierne’s most imaginative textures. An inner section wherein tonality often seems suspended, intruded starkly, reminding us that the composer was writing the work in the midst of World War I at a time when he was suffering multiple personal tragedies. Happily, the beautiful opening major material returned, elaborated in the blissful final section. Abbott’s luscious registrations caught the warm refulgence sought by the composer. In the 1920s Vierne wrote four suites of Pièces de fantaisie to perform on his recital tours. Naïades (Water Nymphs) is a perennial audience favorite for its delicate virtuosity and its vivid evocation of nymphs at play in running waters. This deliciously chromatic moto perpetuo etude demands the energy and agility of its titular nymphs; Abbott’s rendering, ever fluid, was effortless and immaculate, colorful and sparkling.

Following a quiet, intimate tour de force with a much more dramatic and powerful one, the artist closed with Vexilla Regis Prodeunt (The Banners of the King Issue Forth), by the Lebanese-born, French-trained organist/composer Naji Hakim (b. 1955). Abbott commissioned the work, which was completed in 1995. Using the same technique that Langlais did in the recital’s opening piece, Hakim begins with distant stormy rumbles at times overlaid with brilliant “flashes of light” from the biggest reeds with a good deal of toccata figuration. Though unmistakably Contemporary, this piece is less avant garde than much of Hakim’s organ works, mixing some familiar elements (e.g., touches of jazz harmony, syncopations, and Messiaen-like birdsong figures) with creative textures that are unique to Hakim. As in the Guridi, Abbott gave us a tour of numerous sound colors including some less conventional. In the quieter sections we heard the Vox Humana as solo and in combination with a flute with tremulant added. In the louder sections, entire chords on the instrument’s most powerful stop, the Tuba Mirabilis (literally, “wondrous trumpet”), blazed through the cathedral. The final section recapitulated the flamboyant opening material and extended it, ending with a hair-raising accelerando/crescendo to the tutti. The listeners, a great many organists among them, responded with an instant standing ovation.

One could imagine Messrs. Hook and Hastings themselves being amazed at the range and versatility of their own creation, in the final piece and others throughout the program; moreover, one could not ask for a better demonstration of the organ’s continuing restoration with support from the cathedral’s enhanced acoustics. Our thanks must go to Leo Abbott whose vision and steely determination made this great occasion possible.

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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  1. Leo Abbott has been a long time friend of mine who I love. His concert Sunday was a gift from God
    The Cathedral of the Holy Cross organ has been Leo Abbott organ for years.He knows it better than anyone.. He is so good to talk to I also had the privilege of singing in the Archdiocese Choir for Leo Abbott a great teacher

    Comment by Charlie Bosselman — September 20, 2019 at 8:50 am

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