The Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans celebrated the completion of its massive and extraordinary “St. Cecilia organ” with a recital by Thomas Murray on Saturday. The William Rawn building containing the instrument must surely be one of the showpieces of Cape Cod. Its architecture derives from ancient basilican form, first used by the Romans and later adopted by the earliest Christians, reflecting both the Community of Jesus’s ecumenical vision and its monastic identity. The sanctuary’s antiphonal seating allows for chanting the psalmody, and the placement of the organ in chambers above the side aisles allows the instrument to speak throughout the whole length of the nave. Nelson Barden, acclaimed organ restorer, preservationist, and general visionary, who has been based in Boston since the early 1960s, has concentrated on this project for over 25 years; it now caps his career and amounts to perhaps his ultimate testament in sound and organistic vision. The four-manual behemoth amalgamates 185 ranks amounting to 11,964 pipes from some 18 Ernest M. Skinner organs built between 1906 and 1951 into a unified whole [stoplist HERE]. In his original 1995 vision statement to the church’s then-Prioress, Mother Betty Pugsley, Barden set forth a number of goals, among them [an organ] “world-class and unique”, “built to last forever”, “capable of eliciting profound emotions”, and “a trendsetter, even at the expense of early criticism.” Distinguishing characteristics would include the arrangement of pipework on north-south as well as east-west axes and the incorporation of the latest computer control of stops and swell-shades such that “directional and surround effects . . . would lift the instrument beyond state-of-the-art into a unique realm. Moving melody could range freely over the building from left to right and front to back . . .” Thomas Murray, celebrated for his spellbinding, coloristic mastery of enormous “symphonic” organs, particularly that of Woolsey Hall, Yale University, where he taught at the School of Music from 1981 to 2019, made for the perfect choice at this celebratory event.
As is his wont, Murray selected a judicious combination of familiar, beloved works and far-less-known but entirely worthwhile pieces. Benedicamus Domino (“let us bless the Lord”) by the Belgian-British composer Guy Weitz (1883-1970) gave us a bracing brass fanfare alternating powerful reed choruses with foundation plenums while also introducing the listeners to the fabled “surround sound” of the St. Cecilia organ. Stirring fanfares did indeed seem to issue from at least four distinct locations before giving way to a fugato on lighter flues and mixtures. Weitz made imaginative use of the title plainchant (used as the closing salutation of the Mass after AD 1000) in all sections, and Murray never failed to point it up in the texture. It sounded forth most prominently, of course, in the stirring concluding toccata treatment, heard in both the soprano and the pedal simultaneously.
Showing the instrument’s versatility, Murray next turned to a lesser-known work of Mozart, the Fugue in G minor, K. 401, assigned to “keyboard” in its first publication but undoubtedly most natural to play and effective on the organ. The performer used the realization by the great British virtuoso George Thalben-Ball (1896-1987), who added an idiomatic, brief original Introduction, both composers paying homage to J. S. Bach. Murray demonstrated that maintaining clarity of counterpoint did not preclude the tasteful use of antiphonal exchanges; arguably, these enhanced interest in the music which, although as beautiful as one would expect from Mozart, is more intellectual than his more familiar works. Performance practice purists would surely quibble at the artist’s occasional use of the swell-shades to create crescendos and decrescendos, but to my ears these dynamics made sense, being implied by Mozart’s score anyway. With the help of Murray’s consistent articulation and his lean, clear registration, the fugue subject was always easily identifiable even when turned upside-down (Mozart at one point has the original subject and its inversion “conversing”).
Perhaps to show off the English colors of the St. Cecilia organ, Murray next presented two early pieces of Frank Bridge (1879-1941), an English composer of some note though regrettably rather less known today. Allegretto grazioso (A major), a pastoral scherzetto, charmed with harmonies as fresh as a spring breeze, admirably matched by the performer’s selected sounds—a fragrant combination of satin-smooth strings and glistening, magical solo flute. The central section’s harmonies became rather more restless, hinting at the direction Bridge would pursue much farther in his later career, but the recapitulation brought us full circle to a sweet ending. The ebullient mood of Allegro con spirito (B flat major) contrasted strongly with the Allegretto’s though the two works shared a tripartite structure. The many parallel chords were largely legato but just separated enough to keep harmonic clarity in the resonant acoustic of the Church of the Transfiguration. Though couched in a fairly conservative harmonic language for 1905, this piece did employ considerable chromaticism (most of all in the agitated G minor middle section). The mellow but full reeds Murray utilized fitted admirably the music of Bridge, a onetime student of Charles Villiers Stanford and later teacher of Benjamin Britten. The final sequence of flavorful, sustained chords, played at or near full organ, delivered a delightful frisson.
Before playing César Franck’s Chorale No. 3 in A minor (the last work he wrote while on his deathbed), Murray spoke to the audience for the first time, noting that Franck, a singularly modest and pious man, was content to spend his entire adult life in Paris and consequently composed for the one style of organ with which he was familiar: the admittedly ground-breaking symphonic instruments of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. Paying tribute to the joint work of E. M. Skinner and Nelson Barden, our performer declared, “We can go a step beyond.” As in the Mozart, Murray was not prepared to ignore altogether the great resources available to him simply because they had not been available to the composer. The opening toccata-like figures came from apse divisions, and though Franck specified no dynamic or registrational contrast for the slower arpeggiated chords that alternate with the opening figures, Murray created one by adding divisions from the rest of the nave. As this alternation continued, the artist used a rubato that was subtle but sufficient to make Franck’s inventive harmonies feel quasi-improvised. The first “chorale” theme was mournful and moving. The second theme introduced a marked change of mood via the major mood and a softer dynamic. While the solo trumpet employed was mostly restrained by closed swell-shades, it did not have the mystery of Franck’s famously mysterious Swell division at Ste. Clotilde de Paris, but the greater intimacy of the second theme was conveyed nonetheless. At the end of this theme, the first returns in the upper manual register and in major mode, a sort of chant séraphique. Where Franck simply specifies Swell 8’ foundation stops, Murray went “a step beyond” by using a chaste string celeste (perhaps the Erzähler, a Skinner invention) which made the tune more seraphic. Ultimately, a long development and odyssey through many keys coincides with a lengthy orchestral crescendo, executed beautifully and thrillingly by the performer and leading to a reuniting of all the major themes. But even here—the most exciting section of the work—Murray kept a lid on the boiling pot by using subsidiary reed choruses and/or keeping the swell-shades largely shut. Only at the coda did he initiate the climactic crescendo, reserving the thundering full organ for the plagal cadence of the last two measures.
Following the interval the artist spoke affectionately and wittily of his onetime student and composer of the next two pieces, Chelsea Chen (b. 1983), noting that she would bring these pieces to her lessons on occasion. Her Taiwanese Suite (we heard two of its three movements) draws on a multitude of folk melodies well known in Taiwan though not, of course, in our country. Moonlight Blue has a subtle pentatonic flavor and attractive if not especially memorable melodies. Murray explored softer as well as more substantial 8’ strings, a less often heard 16’ string, and a honeyed flute with tremulant. As before, the changing locations from which organ tone emerged added to the music’s atmosphere. Hills in Springtime is more extroverted and celebratory, with more pronounced pentatonicism, echo effects, and greater variety of textures. Chen’s YouTube performance uses quite a few different tone colors, but her teacher used at least as many. One could enjoy the melding of Taiwanese folk melody with Western compositional techniques, e.g., imitative counterpoint and augmentation, the doubling (or otherwise lengthening) of note values when repeating a theme. Murray worked this attractive piece to a sparkling conclusion.
Playing his own arrangement (soon to be published), the performer then gave us the sole transcription on the program, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor, Op. 23 No. 5, a warhorse of the piano repertory. The outer sections, fiery and virtuosic, are characterized by an obsessive polonaise rhythm with rapidly repeated chords that simply cannot be rendered as distinctly on the organ (at the proper tempo); on the other hand, the orchestral writing comes across more vividly on the organ—certainly this organ—than on the piano. The reed choruses gave excitement and power to the outer sections, while the vox humana stop over extended flute arpeggios infused the central section with a rich Slavic melancholy. One might also imagine the piano to have the advantage of greater dynamic nuance (admittedly within a narrower range), but Murray’s sovereign control of both crescendos/decrescendos and sudden dynamic changes belied that supposition. Especially notable were the long but well paced crescendo during the transition from the central section to the return of the opening theme and the gradual diminishing of power to the evanescent ending.
In celebrating the completion of a great new symphonic organ, it would seem de rigeur to include an organ symphony (or a part thereof), and Murray selected three movements from Symphonie II by Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) to conclude the program. Typical of most French organ pastorales, Widor’s second movement features a solo oboe accompanied by flute; again, our performer went a “step beyond” by using a second oboe stop where Widor introduces a minor-mode version of a previously major theme. Murray created a charming rural ambience though he curiously chose to observe only some of the Widor’s indicated staccatos. In the agitato (surely a tempo, not mood, indication), with pedal solos alternating with chordal melodies, the artist once more observed the spirit if not the letter of the composer’s instructions, incrementally increasing the dynamic of the chords’ foundation choruses with each successive entry. Near the end we had another delightful call-and-answer exchange between solo flute and solo oboe. The third movement (Andante) opens lyrically in a dreamy B flat major, somewhat reminiscent of Mendelssohn; we heard a gentle string celeste, open flute, and foundation stop, successively. Murray utilized Widor’s exploration of unexpected key sequences to do a parallel exploration of the St. Cecilia’s plethora of string celestes and flutes. He also employed two sounds (Skinner staples) Widor would not have known but that worked elegantly in this context: the French Horn and Flute Celeste. The performer’s account of the Final (the sixth movement) generated excitement from the start with carillon-like figures in the hands and then feet. Here was another movement offering plentiful dynamic contrasts which Murray skillfully exploited, further enhancing the aural stimulation by registering front-to-back as well as left-to-right. This was perhaps a somewhat subtler excitement than that generated by virtuosos who blaze through the movement at a bravura tempo, but for many listeners I daresay it will live longer in the memory.
In surveying an eclectic range of music, Murray found a comfortable zone between the overly authentic and the exaggeratedly theatrical, e.g., changing stops every measure or not leaving the swell-shades alone for five seconds. Interpreting very different composers’ music on a single organ through a thorough knowledge of the instrument’s capabilities, an educated perception of a composer’s intentions, and of course, a dollop of good taste constituted Murray’s polestar. But to be fair, three men deserve equal praise on this occasion: Thomas Murray, E. M. Skinner, and Nelson Barden. Bravi tutti!