Sunday brought the latest in a longstanding series of benefit recitals for the continuing restoration of the magnificent organ of Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross. E. & G. G. Hook & Hastings Organ Company completed opus 801 in 1875, the same year as the cathedral itself. Though much lionized in its day, the instrument fell into disrepair well before its 100th birthday and remained all but unplayable for decades. In 1990 then-Music Director Leo Abbott organized the first benefit recital, performing with a number of other distinguished organists to raise funds for the ongoing restoration. Subsequently, similar recitals took place every year. Since Richard J. Clark succeeded Abbott in 2018, the recitals have continued without a break, and it is hoped that the organ will be fully restored in time for the dual 150th anniversary in 2025.
Clark commenced the program with a familiar early work of Olivier Messiaen, Apparition de l’Église éternelle (Apparition of the Eternal Church), intended as an evocation of the timeless steadfastness of the church. Indeed, eternity is a trope found in many of Messiaen’s works, most explicitly in his Quartet for the End of Time. While the performer’s tempo was not fast, it moved ahead rather too much to seem timeless (more andantino than the specified “tres lent”). However, he skillfully managed the subtly nuanced dynamics of this immense arch form: starting with the distant power of restrained swell reeds, the artist gradually brought us to a thundering C major climax before an equally extended tapering off. Next, Clark presented one of his own compositions, Lover of Souls, in collaboration with tenor Michael Gonzalez, a setting of selected texts from Wisdom 11 and Psalm 56. Much of this work was a dialogue between the singer and a solo reed (alternating with a flute), backed up by gently modern, French-inflected harmonies. Though Gonzalez had a bright, forward tone and enunciated well, the vastness of the acoustic made one grateful to have the text printed in the program. Both singer and organist pleasingly manipulated dynamics with subtle skill.
Two pieces, both piano works arranged for organ and played by Thomas Mellan, Music Director at Saint Cecilia Parish, Boston, constituted the most unusual repertoire of the afternoon. Samsara (2010) by Tigran Hamasyan (b. 1987) is based on folk tunes of the composer’s native Armenia. Officially classified as jazz, to my ears it sounded like an imaginative contemporary organ work with only an occasional whiff of jazz. While creating an exciting swirl of broken chords and arpeggios, Mellan utilized a whole panoply of organ colors including foundation stops, Trumpet, Vox Humana, and Tuba Mirabilis. The result was so convincing that it was hard to believe the original work was not written for the organ. The Prelude and Fugue on a Ukrainian Folk Tune by Nestor Nyzhankyvskyi (1893-1940) is an attractive work which similarly highlighted the performer’s considerable gift for “orchestrating” at the organ; a notable example was a fascinating interplay of reed stops near the end of the prelude: Oboe, Vox Humana, 16’ Cor Anglais, and Clarinet (if I’m not mistaken). Even in the more disciplined writing of the fugue, Mellan found an unusually wide array of colors. If the late addition of chorus reeds inevitably obscured some contrapuntal detail, it did yield the reward of a very exciting climax and ending.
As he did last year, Leo Abbott gave the world premiere performance of a work he commissioned from Naji Hakim (b. 1955), the titulaire of Sacré Coeur in Paris. The Variations on “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” (Lo, How a Rose ere Blooming) had the feel of a written-out improvisation though the introduction seemed to withhold the eponymous melody for a surprisingly long time. As befitted the tender Christmas tune, Abbott mostly explored the more intimate colors of the organ, including string celeste, a solo flute, and a secondary plenum on the Swell with the box closed. Hakim’s harmonies ranged impressively far afield but remained consistently consonant over the several variations. Perhaps the most unusual was the final one: a toccata treatment of the tune beginning in the minor mode, interestingly reminiscent of the Gigout Toccata. Eventually, of course, it returned to the major and, ultimately, came full circle to end quietly and mystically. As with last year, Abbott and Hook & Hastings op. 801 were a winning combination that one hopes will inspire listeners to investigate Hakim’s organ music. Marcel Dupre’s Variations sur un Noël were less consistently successful. Three central variations (4, 5, and 7) were rather slow and subdued, an odd effect since 4 and 5 should be splashy display pieces, with rapid staccato chords and cascading triplets respectively. The eighth variation’s solo reed with tremulant was appropriately eerie though the blurry accompanying quintuplets were not readily perceptible as such. The fugato section was clear, but the final toccata’s fast paired chords, admittedly challenging to make clear in a reverberant space, only intermittently registered. The last five chords, however, certainly resounded excitingly in triumphant D major.
Much less familiar were the two pieces Rosalind Mohnsen performed: Méditation a Ste. Clotilde by Philip James (1890-1975) and Marche pontificale from Sonata I in D Minor by Jacques Lemmens (1823-1881). Cesar Franck, whose bicentenary we celebrate this year, was organist of Ste. Clotilde, Paris, and James’s meditation pays tribute to “Pater Seraphicus”, as Franck’s students were fond of calling him. As James was a 20th century composer, his harmonic idiom is more advanced than the older composer’s, bridging the late Romantic, impressionist, and early contemporary eras. Mohnsen made telling use of Franck’s beloved Vox Humana stop where James quotes the former’s D Minor Symphony. Later the same quotation returned to stirring effect at the fortissimo climax before reappearing, once again on the vox humana, towards the end of the piece. The artist brought out both the excitement and the reverence in this little-heard work. Lemmens, like Franck, came from Belgium, and was one of the chain of teachers through whom Charles-Marie Widor traced his pedagogical lineage back to J. S. Bach. Mohnsen’s interpretation of Lemmens’s pontifical march posited a young and vigorous pontiff, less pompous perhaps than the one in Widor’s symphony movement of the same name. A highlight was the antiphonal passage alternating the main tutti with the powerful Tuba Mirabilis stop.
William Endicott then contributed still more esoteric but worthwhile repertoire, beginning with Prelude on Give Me Jesus, composed by Creighton Holder (b. 1992) and dedicated to the performer. In this gently jazzy meditation on the spiritual, Endicott created a dreamy atmosphere using first a soft reed, later a harmonic flute stop, both accompanied by the string celeste. The warm rumble of the 32’ Contra Bourdon added a lovely touch at the end. Most church musicians know Harold Friedell (1905-1958) for a handful of choral anthems (Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether being the best known), but I daresay few of us knew of the existence of his Organ Symphony in E Minor, of which Endicott played the Cantabile movement. A solo flute line alternated with wistful harmonies in a well-chosen mixture of sound colors and subsequently a build-up to a brief climax. Following a return to a gentle 6/8 on the celeste, a solo reed (possibly the Cornopean) sang briefly before the soothing ending.
It was appropriate to end the program with a piece by Cesar Franck, both to observe the 200th anniversary of his birthyear and because the Holy Cross organ does his music so well. Andrew Scanlon selected one of the less often heard works, Final from the Six Pieces. While this work does include Franck’s fanciest footwork (with multiple pedal solos), it is lengthy and somewhat repetitive, and it must be admitted some performances wear out their welcome. Scanlon’s did not thanks to his rhythmic drive and varied dynamics—and flawless footwork. His playing generated excitement and held attention all the way to the resounding conclusion.