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The dedicatory rites and inaugural recital of any new organ are always joyful occasions; for this new organ built by the distinguished American firm of C.B. Fisk, located in Gloucester, Massachusetts, expectations have been high since that firm was selected and the building of the Cathedral was in progress. On this date honoring The Holy Name of Jesus, the Cathedral's huge nave was filled with parishioners and others who came to hear the Fisk's 3,646 pipes in their first "official" outing, almost a year after the organ was delivered to the building for its installation and voicing. If that sounds like a long time, it's not, in the world of custom-built pipe organs. After the eight-week installation of the 22.5-ton instrument, eight months of voicing followed, during which every single pipe's speech was tailored to the room's acoustics. This voicing is a critical element, for there is a saying among organ-builders: "The room (i.e., its acoustic properties) is the most important stop on the organ."
The evening began with a service of Solemn Vespers, with music provided by a chamber orchestra. After the singing of a hymn and several psalms (all to extremely slow tempos) and a homily by Raleigh's Roman Catholic bishop, the Most Rev. Luis Rafael Zarama, an ecclesiastical procession began the rite for the Blessing of the Organ, led by the Most Rev. Michael Burbidge, who led the Raleigh Diocese during the planning and construction of the Cathedral before his transfer to the Diocese of Arlington (Virginia). The organ sounded for the first time in a setting of Psalm 145, composed by the Cathedral's director of music, Dr. Michael Accurso, and in the dedicatory rite's concluding postlude, the Praeludium, Fuge und Postludium by German composer Georg Böhm (1661-1733), played by Dr. David Eaton, also on the Cathedral's staff (though not named in the evening's program).
After a brief interval, organist Nathan Laube opened his formal recital with the opening Allegro movement of the celebrated Sixth organ symphony (technically, the Symphonie pour Grand Orgue, Op. 42, No. 6) by French organist-composer Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937). Laube navigated with ease the bravura aspects of this piece, including the always-tricky passage with perpetual-motion eighth-notes in the pedal, the main theme and three-against-two triplets alternating between right and left hands. The opening and closing passages showed off the power of the 'full organ': exciting in its volume, but darkly weighty in its sonorities.
Laube continued with the "Corrente Italiana" by Juan Bautista José Cabanilles (1644-1712), himself a cathedral organist in Valencia, Spain. This work featured the new organ's flute stops accompanying its scintillating ten-rank Corneta Magnain solo passages.
No opening recital would be complete without some music by supreme organist-composer Johann Sebastian Bach, and Laube offered three of that master's works from his Klavierübung, Part Three: the chorale preludes on "These are the holy ten commands" [S.678] and "Christ, our Lord, came to (the) Jordan" [S.684] and the five-voice fugue in E-flat, nicknamed the "St. Anne." While the first chorale prelude seemed on the slow side as it began, it turned out to be a good tempo for the complex counterpoint of this work, which exhibits Bach's sense of humor in his setting the chorale melody in canon with itself, a pun on the chorale text being about the "Ten Commandments," the foundation of Canon Law. Christ, unser Herr featured the organ's Bassoon 16' stop in the left-hand's depiction of the river Jordan, in which Jesus was baptized, undulating underneath the right-hand's painting of chiasmus figures which represent the voice of God in their symbolic signs of the Cross.
This work was well-played, albeit with a curiously-delayed final chord. The "St. Anne" fugue, which Laube registered with 16-foot (sub-octave) sound throughout, lacked the brightness which is characteristic of organs of Bach's time. Laube performed its three-themed, inter-linked divisions with a sure command of tempo and style but nevertheless began the final fugue subject with the arpeggio which concludes the preceding section.
The surprise of the evening came with Laube's own brilliant transcription of a piano work, Felix Mendelssohn's Variations sérieuses, Op. 54. This work's theme and 17 variations gave opportunity for Laube to show off many of the organ's sound-combinations. Other than the presence of 16' registers in the opening movements, these variations proved to be the best sounds of the evening. It was fascinating to hear this work clothed in garments of organ sound – not "better" than Mendelssohn's original piano writing, but simply an opportunity to hear it with a different set of sonic colors.
The recital concluded with Franz Liszt's titanic Fantasy and Fugue on the chorale Ad nos, ad salutarem undam. With its score of close to fifty pages (in my edition, ed. Karl Straube), this is the longest and largest of Liszt's organ works, twice as long as its nearest "big" work, the B-A-C-H Fantasia and Fugue. Taking its theme from Meyerbeer's opera Le prophète, its multi-sectioned structure provides seemingly endless opportunities for changes in volume and color; Laube gave it a tour-de-force performance. The most beautiful sounds were the organ's liquescent flutes, which sing wonderfully in the Cathedral's reverberant acoustic. And, of course, where Liszt calls for a thunderous fortississimo (fff) conclusion, Fisk's opus 147 was fully capable of producing it. Some people standing in a side aisle were seen putting their hands against the nave wall to feel if it was vibrating!
The organ, it must be said, has a curious tonal design. Of its 61 or 62 stops (the specification and its textual description seemed at odds about this), 44 are of 8' pitch or lower. An acoustic like Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral's which, like almost all similar-sized spaces, favors the lower pitches, needs reinforcement of higher pitches in order to produce a sound spectrum which is not bottom-heavy. Yet, two of this organ's divisions (the Swell and Pedal Divisions) lack a single "mixture" stop (a stop with simultaneously sounds from 3 to as many as 10 or even more high pitches, usually octaves and fifths, to produce a complete "chorus" or "plenum" sound). Indeed, the Swell division lacks even a single off-unison pitch such as the standard "nazard" or "twelfth," sounding an octave-and-a-fifth above the note being played, to reinforce the harmonic structure of the fundamental note.
The result is a weighty sound which, in fuller registrations, lacks clarity. Additionally, the specification will not faithfully produce the sounds desired and specified by great Roman Catholic composers such as François Couperin, Charles Tournemire, or Olivier Messiaen, or the brightness which is an integral part of both German and French Baroque literature. (One also hopes that the stop knob for the prepared-for Tuba Mirabilis is engraved with that spelling, rather than the misspelled "Mirabalis" which appears in the printed specification on the builder's web site and in the dedicatory recital program.)
In summary: a beautifully-played recital by Laube, in a program lacking any work by a contemporary composer, on a major instrument by the C.B. Fisk company which has many beautiful sounds but which lacks clarity in its louder registrations.