Boston is privileged to possess one of the finest examples of 19th-century American organ building in E.& G.G. Hook & Hastings’s grand Opus 801 (1875) at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. During its now three-decades-long resurrection, funds have come largely from annual benefit recitals initiated in 1990 by the cathedral’s then-Music Director and current Emeritus Leo D. Abbott. Due to the current restrictions on concert attendance, this year’s recital had (and will have) a largely virtual audience, though this reviewer was one of the privileged few permitted to attend in person. The five accomplished organists performed music predominantly written for romantic and symphonic organs in cathedral settings.
Following current Music Director Richard J. Clark’s welcome to listeners present and online, Abbott opened with the last of Saint-Saëns’s Seven Improvisations, Op. 150. This Allegro giocoso composition (not in fact an improvisation) is a fine example of the composer’s vigor at age 81; a jaunty dance in triple time, it reminds one of a traditional French noël. After arresting opening chords on the aptly named Tuba mirabilis (literally, wondrous trumpet), Abbott came across with panache and clipped articulation, giving the alternating chords and running eighth-notes rhythmic thrust and textural clarity in the very reverberant acoustic.
Variationen über “Freu dich sehr, O meine Seele” (Variations on “Rejoice Greatly, O My Soul”) by Naji Hakim (b. 1955), commissioned by the performer, received its world premiere in Abbott’s hands and feet. While the German title reflects its Lutheran chorale basis, the work encompasses an array of styles that influence Hakim. The composer presents the first exposition of the chorale in a hymn-like style, though in canon between the outer voices, with occasional unconventional harmonies. The second variation is a clear tribute to the polyphonic style of J. S. Bach’s Orgelbüchlein chorale preludes; Abbott’s leaner registration kept the counterpoint clear. Next a frolicsome two-voice duet (flues and clarinet) evoked a pair of energetic tots. The fourth variation was thoroughly French: a flûte harmonique carried the theme in the pedal, accompanied by a shimmering vox humana, often recalling the sounds and mysticism of early Messiaen. Hakim permitted himself a bit of irreverence in the fifth variation, placing the theme in detached left-hand notes with interjections from pedal and right hand and utilizing cabaret-like harmonies and rhythms. The sixth was notable for being largely in the minor mode, the chorale a cantilena in the soprano, with the left hand and pedal alternating with each other, coming to a cheeky conclusion. The seventh and final variation, featuring careening right-hand passagework which commanded more attention than the tune in the left hand, titillated me. This fun finale had too brief a span to serve as a conventional culmination of the entire piece, but no matter. Abbott’s performance effectively showcased many of the instrument’s variegated colors and caught the various moods of Hakim’s latest distinguished contribution to the organ literature.
Richard Clark then spoke about the organ’s most pressing needs and paid tribute to Abbott’s vision and determination to restore the organ to its former glory. He then welcomed Rodger Clinton Vine, Artist-in-Residence at the Arlington Street Church to the bench. Vine took “the road less traveled” by opening with a relatively obscure work of Marcel Dupré “for organ or harmonium”, in fact, his last composition, written in 1969. Composed in remembrance of a longtime family friend, Souvenir, Op. 65bis, is atypically simple and serene, far removed from the composer’s characteristic virtuosic demands and frequently dissonant harmonies. Vine’s warm performance utilized a sweet combination of flue stops.
The seventh piece, Thème et Variations, from the Suite Hommage à Frescobaldi by his teacher Jean Langlais came next. As with the Hakim, these variations serve to demonstrate the great variety of tone colors possible on a large organ as well as the creativity of the composer who gives a range of treatments to a single theme. The theme’s first exposition on (perhaps) the vox humana without tremulant simulating the Renaissance chord progressions of Frescobaldi, and also the effervescent final variation that featured chords alternating with pianistic flourishes, showed particularly striking qualities. Vine’s execution and registration appropriately sparkled. He finished the group with a work by another of his teachers: the Final on “Ave maris stella” from Mass in Honor of the Holy Virgin by Jeanne Joulain (1920-2010). Like Dupré 40 years earlier, Joulain used the Marian hymn “Ave maris stella” (Hail, star of the sea) as the basis for an exciting toccata, but she also set her distinctive stamp on her version, contrasting textures and moving spontaneously between consonance and dissonance. A moment when the manual figuration nearly disappeared into the smothered Swell division over a long pedal point allowed for a lengthy, riveting crescendo and galvanic chordal conclusion.
Xuan He, Richard Clark’s successor at Saint Cecilia Parish in Boston’s Back Bay followed and expanded on Vine’s lead, with compositions by women. Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) is, of course, the preëminent teacher of composition in the 20th century but also a composer herself in her youth. Her Prélude (from Three Pieces) uses the upper registers almost exclusively but conveys a mood of yearning through its F minor chromaticism that evokes the music of one of Boulanger’s teachers, Louis Vierne. Xuan rendered it with generous expressive rubatos. He effectively exploited the interplay of primary and secondary foundation stops, colored at times by the handsome Hook & Hastings reeds. The lovely F major coda attained a place of bliss and serenity. Florence Price (1887-1953) was a pioneer twice over as an African American woman composer. Though Price wrote acclaimed works in numerous genres, her organ work Adoration made a great fit here here, since she received her B.Mus. degree in organ and piano from New England Conservatory (at age 19!). Adoration features extended melodies on a warm solo reed in its outer sections which frame a central section in the subdominant key with both hands playing on the warmly embracing vox humana stop. Xuan projected affection with his broad phrasing appropriate to this huge space. Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847) wrote the Prelude in F Major for her marriage to Wilhelm Hensel in 1829. The joyful piece contrasted full organ with a smaller antiphonal sound and balanced vigor with a grand sense of occasion. In an ideal world, it would already be standard repertoire on organ recitals. Hats off to both Xuan and Vine for promoting women composers who should be better known.
The Cathedral’s titulaire Richard J. Clark illustrated the starkly different styles of two French contemporaries Jehan Alain (1911-1940) and Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). Alain “swam against the tide” by composing in a neo-classical manner inspired by playing, in his childhood, the residential tracker organ built by his father, Albert Alain. Stylistically, therefore, Jehan Alain’s Second Fantasy represented the greatest “stretch” for Hook & Hastings’ Opus 801 which, to be honest, lacks the full range of mutation stops typical of a more classical instrument as well as the leaner voicing and responsive action needed to articulate rapid repeating accompanimental figures (though the latter is due equally to the significant reverberation of the sanctuary). Nonetheless, Clark’s performance took us compellingly on the Alain’s emotional journey. It begins plaintively, becomes ever more emphatic on the way to a searing climax, before subsiding to a bleak conclusion. Messiaen’s music, on the other hand, very much grows out of the French symphonic organ school, inextricably linked to the great instruments built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll for, among many other venues, Saint-Sulpice, Notre Dame de Paris, and Église de la Sainte-Trinité, the church over which Messiaen presided for more than 60 years. The rich sounds of the Holy Cross organ resounded quite appropriately in this work. The seventh movement of the composer’s suite La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord), titled Jésus accepte la souffrance (Jesus Accepts his Suffering), is of course a foreshadowing of his crucifixion. Grindingly dissonant chords and growling reeds in the pedals graphically illustrate Christ’s anguish but alternate with ethereal chords in the treble perhaps depicting his parentage and ultimate divine destiny. Certainly, the concluding sequence of fortissimo harmonies and the brilliantly major and utterly consonant final chord reinforce the notion of glorious resurrection. Again, Clark’s vivid sound colors and emotionally committed playing created a compelling, dramatic narrative.
The recital concluded by stepping back to the previous generation of symphonists, as Rosalind Mohnsen, Music Director and Organist of Immaculate Conception Church in Malden, performed the first movement of the Second Symphony by Louis Vierne (1870-1937). The composer constructed this movement on two main themes, the first jagged and bracingly rhythmic, the second lyrical and largely in stepwise motion. Mohnsen gave the work Romantic grandeur such as Vierne would have done at Notre Dame: the first theme had drama and forward impetus while the second granted repose. Mohnsen achieved a signal success in the point when a single note in the pedal began a long, orchestral crescendo with running figures in the hands leading to the full-organ recapitulation of the first theme. At the dénouement both themes united for the first time before the movement concluded in a blaze of E major glory. Mohnsen practically gave a lesson on technical assurance and musical inspiration.
The 30-year series of benefit recitals at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross continues its high standard of performances that make full use not only of the organ’s strengths, but also its versatility, by including some music unfamiliar even to connoisseurs of the literature. One hopes these artists’ gifts for making the instrument sound splendid do not inadvertently undermine the cause by concealing the very real and pressing need to fund further work on the organ. Beautiful though it can sound when everything in the highly complex old friend is working, we all hope that the day may soon come when Opus 801 will also operate reliably. Can any reader spare $1 million?
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.