With support from the Central NC Chapter of the American Guild of Organists (AGO), Raleigh’s Edenton Street United Methodist Church presented a wide-ranging recital by Diane Meredith Belcher on the church's five-manual Létourneau organ. Opening with works by high Baroque composers J.S. Bach and J.G. Walther, Ms Belcher’s program also included contemporary music by American John Weaver, British Roxanna Panufnik, and German Johannes Matthias Michel. The French Romantic school was represented by well-known works by César Franck and Charles Marie Widor.
In each of these contrasting styles, Ms Belcher’s playing was a model of clarity. Her superb manual and pedal techniques allowed her to articulate polyphonic lines with precision, but also with musicality. Her Bach was the Prelude and Fugue in E-flat, S. 552. The Prelude’s opening tempo was appropriately bright, with enough added ornamentation to remind listeners that this piece is a French overture. While her use of 16' tone (for non-organists, 16' pitch indicates sounds an octave below the written notes) worked well for the Prelude, its use for the first section of the Fugue was, like her tempo, ponderous. When that first subject reappeared in the second and final sections of the Fugue, its speed was increased so that it could join the second and third fugal subjects in counterpoint.
Johann Gottfried Walther was a contemporary and pupil of J.S. Bach. Like Bach, he transcribed a number of Vivaldi concerti for solo organ performance. For Walther’s Concerto in B minor after Vivaldi, Ms Belcher chose light registrations which demonstrated some of the best sounds of the Létourneau organ. The second movement Adagio featured a solo line with a Baroque-sounding tremulant.
John Weaver, noted organist and one of Ms Belcher's teachers, is also an accomplished composer. His Passacaglia on a theme by Dunstable is more a set of variations than a true passacaglia; the theme is that known as the Agincourt Hymn. In one variation, we heard for the first time in the recital the organ’s string sounds, accompanying a liquescent flute solo. The toccata-like final variation put both organist and organ in fortissimo virtuoso mode, a grand ending to the recital’s first half.
British composer Roxanna Panufnik has written a wide variety of major works, both instrumental and vocal. Her "Kyrie cum Jubilo," composed in 2008, does not rank among the best of these. The dissonant harmonies into which she subsumes the plainsong theme are so far from the inherent mood of that theme that they clash with it. It is, however, well-written for the organ, even requiring double-pedal (two parts played simultaneously with the feet), and is mercifully short.
Franck’s Prelude, Fugue, et Variation, Op. 18, brought lyrical playing, featuring the organ’s Hautbois d'orchestre stop for the solo lines in the Prelude and the Variation. Perhaps reacting to the church's dry acoustic, Ms Belcher played the Fugue in a seamless legato in which the lack of phrasing was a surprising contrast to the rest of the work. At the end, as was also the case with the Bach and the Widor works, the penultimate chord was lengthened out of proportion to the retard which preceded it.
Michel’s Four Jazz Chorale Settings are fun pieces, each a short setting of a hymn-tune (old and new tunes) calling for sounds reminiscent of a good Wurlitzer theater organ. Like one of his teachers, Heinz Werner Zimmermann, Michel knows how to employ American jazz idioms; the walking bass line in the 5/4 treatment of Erhalt uns Herr called “Swing Five” suggests that Michel has listened more than once to Dave Brubeck's “Take Five.” Ms Belcher played all four settings with elan and with colorful registrations, eliciting smiles and a few chuckles from the audience.
The evening closed with a no-holds-barred reading of the first movement of Widor’s Symphonie VI, Op. 42. This music, far more demanding technically than its much-more-famous cousin, the Toccata from the Fifth Organ Symphony, is the quintessential Widor: melodic, colorful, and powerful. Ms Belcher threaded her way through the contrapuntal two-against-three passages and the triple-octave passages with easy dexterity, bringing the audience to its feet in appreciation.
The organ is situated on both sides of the chancel, speaking across that area with little sound egress into the nave. It would help the acoustics if the carpeting were removed from the long center aisle of the nave, as the organ's voice, despite its size, has trouble reaching the rear of the sanctuary. It was good to see the organ console front-and-center in the chancel, having been moved from its normal position behind the pulpit.