Tag Archives: Mussorgsky

Russian Organ Music in a French-Canadian Basilica

Organist Gail Archer
Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, Lewiston
Oct. 1, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The Kotzschmar at Merrill Auditorium in Portland is not the only “mighty” organ in Maine. The 1938 Casavant organ in Lewiston’s Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul sounded equally magnificent in a recital Sunday evening by Gail Archer.

Archer, director of the music program at Barnard College, is a well-known recording artist and the first American woman to play the complete organ compositions of Olivier Messiaen. On Sunday she presented relatively unknown works by Russian composers, discovered there during a recent concert tour.

Their “modern” organ music is as varied in form and content as that of their better-known European contemporaries, with what seems to be a predilection for deep pedal point. What is this Russian love for the bass (which I share)?

The program began with an intellectually challenging and symphonic Prelude and Fugue in D minor (Op. 98) of Alexander Glasunow (1865-1936) which harked back to baroque models.
It was followed by two preludes of Cesar Cui (1836-1918) which sounded more, in their melodic character, like Mendelssohn “Songs without Words.”

A Prelude Pastoral (Op. 54) of Sergej Ljapunow (1859-1924) contained the requisite babbling brooks, abrupt changes of voice and some beautiful filagree work over a steady pedal point.

My favorite of the evening was a violent, polytonal and sometimes humorous Toccata by Sergei Slonimsky (b. 1932), brother of the noted writer on music, Nicolas Slonimsky. It requires the organist to play a different key in each hand. I don’t know which one the pedal favors, or if it even takes sides.

Another Prelude and Fugue, by Alexander Shaversaschvili (1919-2003) concluded with a brassy fugue that would wake the dead. They (the dead) were then given their hour in a tremendous virtuoso transcription of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.” by Zsigmond Szathmary.

In some ways, the organ transcription seems more in line with the composer’s intention than the orchestral version. The atmosphere is certainly menacing enough. The church bells announcing the dawn, simulated by chimes in the orchestra, became resonant, more bell-like chords on the organ.

The Casavant organ, like the Kotzschmar last year, is being renovated, with the work about 35 percent complete. No deficiencies were apparent during the concert, with Archer completely in control of the keyboard and registers, without electronic assistance. Her concert was the last in a summer series helping to raise funds for the restoration.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

A Grand Display of “Pictures at an Exhibition”

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Sept. 26, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The first concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra season at Merrill Auditorium began with an orchestral version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” a tribute, as music director Robert Moody observed, to all of those afflicted by climate disasters in the U.S. and its Caribbean territories.

The arrangement was followed appropriately by a rhythmic and well-executed “Danzón No. 2 (1994) by contemporary Mexican composer Arturo Márquez. I had heard this work before, played by an orchestra stemming from the Venezuelan program “El sistema,” and the Northern version seemed just as authentic and exciting. Enjoyable fluff, with enough contrasts in texture to make it interesting.
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It is impossible to write a concerto for organ and orchestra, but German composer Hans-Andre Stamm gave it a try in 1998, basing the three movements on portions of the 23rd Psalm.
“Impossible” because when the organ is loud enough to hear, it drowns out the orchestra, and vice versa. The sounds of the instrument and and those of individual sections of the band are too similar to provide much contrast, and in a battle for dominance the Kotzschmar will always win.

Both the orchestra and organist James Jones gave it the best possible performance, with some of the tranquil passages —“He leadeth me beside still waters”—miraculously well balanced.
The style of the work, a tonal combination of neo-Romantic and church music, did not help to overcome the sonic difficulties, and it was hard to understand how the concluding middle Eastern dance music fitted into the scheme of the psalm.

The organ does have its uses in a symphony orchestra, as proved by the tremendous conclusion of the Mussorgsky/Ravel “Pictures at an Exhibition:’ “The Great Gate of Kiev.” When I play it on the piano I always wish for a larger Steinway, or maybe a Bosendorfer, but Moody had an ace in the hole with the Kotzschmar. Just when you think the ultimate in sonority has been reached, in comes an organ pipe and moves the earth.

At the time of writing, I have been unable to discover whether the Ravel transcription includes the organ or whether it was borrowed from Stokowski’s later, more “Slavic” version. Whatever the case, it belongs there.

The other “pictures” were equally well rendered, conjuring up images like no other music, from the groaning of an ox cart to the surreal “Hut on Hen’s Legs” and its brilliant percussion. In “With the Dead in the Tongue of the Dead,” the skulls begin to glow..

At the conclusion, the standing ovation was so long that Moody left the stage and allowed the orchestra members to receive it all by themselves.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.