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Dettra Holds Forth


On a crisp autumn day featuring a good deal of multi-hued foliage, I made my way to Groton Hill Music Center Sunday afternoon to hear Scott Dettra hold forth on the 1000-seat Concert Hall’s new virtual pipe organ, remarkable for its own vast array of colors. Thanks to its Hauptwerk software, a recitalist can choose among 15 different digitally sampled pipe organs to perform literature from a very large range of periods, styles, and nationalities. As a trained organist myself, I had no love for the electronic organs of the late 20th century whose sound, even when it somewhat resembled that of real pipes, was so perfectly even and utterly uniform that one inevitably heard it as “synthetic” and without character. With the significant advance in digital technology beginning at the very end of the previous century, however, the virtual pipe organ (VPO) emerged as a new type of instrument. While it does share the defining trait of earlier electronic organ—producing tone without pipes, using speakers—it digitally reproduces the sound of real pipes recorded elsewhere, and it includes the slightly varying characters among notes within a single stop that are not enough to mar the music but are perceptible and therefore lend the organ an air of authenticity. Since I have had very limited exposure to virtual pipe organs, I entered the hall with an open mind but (to be honest) also some skepticism that this instrument would be a significant advance over the digital and hybrid (a combination of digital registers and real pipes) organs I have heard and played; I left convinced that a new breed of organbuilders, whose skills extend into computer technology, have achieved this advance. Because VPOs necessarily rely on genuine pipe organs as the source of their tone, the former will never supplant the latter but will offer the possibility of organs to organizations that do not have million-range budgets or sufficient physical space for even a medium-sized pipe organ. Readers wishing to know further details about the many fascinating aspects of VPOs should peruse BMInt’s significant feature HERE.

That an artist of Scott Dettra’s stature readily agreed to perform on this instrument surely should also have some influence on the purists among us (those from whom one still sometimes hears the old saw, “If it has no pipes, it’s not an organ”). Moreover, Dettra’s program consisted nearly entirely of very well-known and well-loved repertoire which organ-lovers have heard live and on recordings of famous organs here and abroad, so he seemed to be demonstrating his confidence that this organ would measure up to those distinguished pipe organs. I can believe that even an experienced organist, hearing a recording of this recital without being told that it was played on a VPO, could conclude that it consisted of performances on three genuine pipe organs.

One wondered if the performer’s choice of opener, Wagner’s Overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the sole work outside mainstream repertoire, might be a sly allusion to the new breed of organbuilders (in this case, Meta Organworks). Die Meistersinger (literally “the master-singers”) in this opera refers to an actual Renaissance-era guild of master craftsmen who were also amateur poets and musicians. In any case, the overture, transcribed by the late 19th– and early 20th-century virtuoso Edwin Lemare, made a rousing curtain-raiser. Dettra selected the German Romantic sample-set: the 1916 Walcker organ at the Martinikerk in Doesburg, Netherlands (though the orchestral E. M. Skinner sample-set would likely have been a viable alternative). In the full, rich sound of the opening, chorus reeds and the principal plenum were equal partners with neither dominating the other, and the upperwork—higher-pitched stops, mutations, and mixtures—was more prominent than in a typical Romantic organ. Nonetheless, the fanfare figures that feature prominently throughout the overture emerged with the requisite powerfully brassy timbre, and the smorgasbord of quieter 8’ colors was very much in the Romantic tradition. The artist skillfully handled orchestral crescendos and diminuendos, manipulating toe and finger pistons (changing stop combinations) as well as swell boxes, and his attentive contrasting of playful staccato with noble legato was exemplary. As always, Lemare’s transcription supplied ample pyrotechnics in both hands and feet, but in Dettra’s accomplished playing, musical communication took precedence over mere display.

For the Bach and Mozart works that followed, the organist selected a sample-set of the Sonnenorgel (literally, Sun Organ) of Sts. Peter and Paul in Görlitz, Germany, a modern instrument built in the Baroque style to replicate its predecessor from 1697. J. S. Bach’s Passacaglia in C Minor (BWV 582) is indisputably one of his greatest works, making the eponymous stately Spanish dance into a stunning set of variations; these conclude in a great fugue which both forms the climactic final variation and adds two new counter-subjects to the original theme. At the outset Bach has the organist play the theme, solo, on the pedals: Dettra played it entirely detached which regrettably robbed the piece of any dancelike character. The composer, of course, specified no articulation, leaving it up to the performer, but to play the main theme non-legato throughout is to miss the opportunity for varying articulation as well as reminding the listener that at base this is a dance. Dettra did, of course, vary the registrations, finding numerous attractive Baroque sound colors, ranging from subdued and mournful to authoritative as inspired by each variation. In his hands, Bach’s counterpoint was always clear and the tempo utterly steady (though some rhythmic inflection would have been welcome). One pleasant surprise was Dettra’s interpolation of a cadenza at the climax of the fugue; though Bach’s score merely indicates a pregnant pause after a long-held Neapolitan sixth chord, it is an ideal place to insert a cadenza, yet very few organists do so. This leads to the truly monumental coda with double pedal on the last two harmonies (a rarity in Bach). Given that the Sonnenorgel is a large instrument of four manuals, I was slightly disappointed that this most dramatic ending had less impact than usual.

Dettra then gave us an impressive performance of Mozart’s Fantasia in F Minor, K. 608, a work not written for a human player but rather a mechanical clock operating an organ. Moreover, although Mozart did not give it the name of “Fantasia”, as Ian Carson has stated, “it is a totally appropriate name for a piece which is even more fantastic than the machine for which it was created.” The stormy outer sections, which feature a French overture with dotted rhythms and a fugue, frame a ravishing slower central section in A flat major. The artist generated excitement with his sharp rhythms and clear articulation in the overture passages as well as unflagging energy in the fugues. His choice of flute stops and subtle, graceful rubato in the major section created a beautiful effect. When Mozart recapitulates the fugue, he adds a chromatic counter-subject not heard before; Dettra’s demonic energy here ratcheted up the tension all the way to the breathless conclusion. While most organists expect this piece also to end at something at or near full organ, the performer’s more restrained registration was perhaps more evocative of the more modest sort of organ operated by a mechanical clock, but this remained a very stirring account in any case.

In the second half we moved into French repertoire, played on the sample-set of the Cavaillé-Coll of St. Étienne in Caen, France, and my friend and I relocated from floor seats to the rear balcony where we were now directly opposite the 32 main speakers and 12 subwoofers that reproduced the sounds of the three organs we heard, and the enhanced impact from this location was readily perceptible. César Franck’s Three Chorales, written shortly before his death in 1890, form his musical legacy and are some of the most moving music he wrote. Dettra selected Choral No. 3 in A Minor. In this work, multiple factors combined to create an exceptionally satisfying performance: the vivid Haputwerk reproduction of a late symphonic organ built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, Dettra’s scrupulous observance of the composer’s indications of registrations, dynamics, tempos, etc., and his personal and expressive use of rubato. The agitated figures and built-up chords of the opening section grabbed our attention initially before Dettra’s smooth transition into major-key relaxation and the caressing, cantabile new theme played on the handsome Récit Trompette 8’. Later the chorale theme, first heard on restrained reeds near the opening, returned, movingly transformed into a seraphic song (Franck’s protégés often referred to him as pater seraphicus) on gentle 8’ foundation stops in a high register. In a subsequent passage Dettra made a masterful orchestral-style crescendo, with the chorale theme first in the top voice, then in the pedals. In the work’s final section the toccata-like figuration of the opening combined with the sustained chorale theme to powerful effect. At the end when a D minor chord begins from the top and expands downward before resolving to the final mighty A major, the artist made this listener profoundly experience the sense of triumph.

Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) was a supremely gifted organist (a onetime student of Charles Tournemire and Louis Vierne), teacher, and surely one of the most self-critical composers who ever lived, published only 12 opus numbers in his lifetime. The Prelude and Fugue on the Name of Alain, Op. 7 is as fine as anything he wrote, at once an ingenious bit of compositional wizardry and a beautiful and moving tribute to a younger organist-composer killed early in World War II, Jehan Alain (1911-1940) whose catalogue of works already included several masterpieces at the time of his cruelly early death. Duruflé makes the letters A-L-A-I-N (the pitches ADAAF in European nomenclature) the germ on which both prelude and fugue are based. Though Duruflé’s musical language leans more toward the Neo-classical than the Romantic, the Caen Cavaillé-Coll sample-set, carefully registered as it was by Dettra, serves his music well and furnishes many moments of beauty. The performer found a silvery flute stop for the continually bubbling triplet accompaniment of the prelude, and the svelte solo reeds he selected played their part equally well. As is the norm with Duruflé, the work’s technical demands are considerable, but Dettra’s consistent fluency and clarity pervaded the whole performance. Through much of the prelude the composer incorporates motifs from Alain’s best-known work, Litanies (once in a two-voice canon played by one hand!), but at the end quotes it in full: Dettra made this a poignant moment indeed. The double fugue’s first subject begins simply with the ADAAF theme and extension on lean, smooth 8’ foundation stops in sober eighth notes, in contrast to the busyness of most of the prelude. With the entry of the second subject—on a plenum with plein jeu mixture in a closed swell box—the drama begins gradually to heat up, with eighth notes giving way to sixteenths and the composer cleverly combining the first fugue subject and its inversion with the second subject. Dettra used another meticulously planned and executed crescendo to build up power and excitement to the climactic final entry of both subjects and the resounding conclusion.

I had entered Groton Hill Music Center’s attractiveme concert hall open minded about how the Hauptwerk software might faithfully to reproduce acclaimed pipe organs through dozens of loudspeakers into an acoustically willing hall; I left  pleasantly surprised. A major part of the credit for this must go to Scott Dettra who has used these new tools to make music at a high level.

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 Organist of First Parish Church of Weston as well as 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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