France has a centuries-long tradition of celebrated organist-composers, including such names as Marchand, D'Aquin, Dandrieu, Tournemire, Franck, Saint-Saëns, Widor, Messiaen, and Vierne. In the latter half of the twentieth century, none was better known than Maurice Duruflé [1902-1986], whose 1947 Requiem has become a staple of choral societies and church choirs around the world.
Eric Suter honored the thirtieth anniversary of Duruflé's death by playing all of the French master's published organ works — all seven of them. The number is so small because Duruflé was intensely self-critical about his compositions, destroying many of them and often revising others after first publication. Suter's program: Fugue sur le Thème du Carillon des Heures de la Cathédral de Soissons, Op. 12; Scherzo, Op. 2; Suite pour Orgue, Op. 5; Méditation pour Orgue (posthumous, sketched in 1964); Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d'Alain, Op. 7; Prélude sur l'Introit de l'Épiphanie, Op. 13; and the Prélude, Adagio et Choral Varié sur le thème du "Veni Creator," Op. 4.
Three of these are major, multi-movement works: the 1930 work based on the plainsong hymn Veni Creator, the 1932 Suite, and the 1942 Alain prelude and fugue. These works are seldom heard; not only are they extremely challenging for the performer, but they require the tonal resources of a very large organ like those built for many French cathedrals by the famed nineteenth-century builder Aristide Cavaille-Coll. Not only is it not possible to follow Duruflé's tonal instructions on smaller organs, but many organs are in rooms without the long reverberation times of French cathedrals; as one organ-builder said, "the room is the most important stop on any organ."
Fortunately, Duke Chapel's 1932 Aeolian organ and its "room" are much like its French counterparts. Suter, who for ten years was Organist at Washington Cathedral, must have found this organ and building familiar in that regard. His playing left technical difficulties in the rehearsal room as he was totally at ease with the music. From the quiet moments of the "Meditation" and the Veni Creator Adagio to the Heaven-storming Toccata that closes the Suite, the music was in sure hands (and feet; there are numerous instances in these scores which require double-pedal technique, two lines of counterpoint in the pedal, one played by each foot).
Colors abounded: the sparkling flutes played off against the quiet string stops in the Scherzo; the evocative (and typically French) solo line played by the organ's "foundation stops"; solo voices including the Flauto Mirabilis and the Corno di Bassetto; and the floor-shaking quiet 32' pedal Bourdon which made several appropriate appearances. (This pitch is lacking in the 1976 Flentrop organ which stands at the back of Duke Chapel because, as I was told some decades ago, its builder did not believe that the room's acoustics were favorable for it, a rare miscalculation by this eminent Dutch master-builder.) It was a delightful surprise to hear stanzas of the Veni Creator hymn (traditionally sung at ordination services since the ninth century) chanted before each organ variation from the rear of the Chapel by the Duke Evensong Choir.
Several of Suter's tempi seemed on the fast side for this reverberant acoustic; the rapid figurations in the toccata and similar passages, while exciting to hear, lost clarity at speeds which, especially in the "Alain" fugue, were faster than the composer's directions. Several pedal lines were indistinct; while this was mostly because this instrument's Pedal Division lacks higher-pitched sets of pipes, using some manual-to-pedal octave couplers might have compensated for this.
Those performance elements aside, however, this was a tour-de-force of organ playing, fine and compelling playing and musicianship. It may be noted that when Suter's fingers aren't flying over organ keys, he is often in the cockpit flying passenger aircraft as a professional pilot.
Because the Duke organ's console is hidden, it would be a welcome innovation for them to emulate Durham's St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, which allows organ-recital audiences to see the hidden performer and organ console via a closed-circuit television image projected onto a large screen.
Edited on November 16, 2016