The First of What I Promised

This and the following recital reviews were slow in coming and aren’t the kind of detailed analytical reviews I usually write (when I do write a concert review). Rather, they are more or less reflective impressions. I’m only offering these at this point, not so much because I want to, but, to keep a promise. As the outsider organist who tries to observe organ concerts in a light that is more indicative of standard classical concerts I realise the things I say won’t change anything, but will still grate against a lot of organists’ sensibilities. They’re just my own observations and opinions. I thought I’d start with not only the first, but also the one I enjoyed the most (with one exception). Interestingly enough, the chronology actually followed in a descending progression.
During the week of 22 June 2014 Boston, the American Guild of Organists had their national convention. I had the opportunity to attend a few recitals. Two by what may be considered in the organ world as major artists and one consisting of three of the winners of the nine 2013 AGO Quimby Regional Competitions for Young Organists (one from Region I and two from Region II) . As I noted earlier in my general impressions, even though it was a small sample, I’ve attended more than my fair share of organ recitals by “major” artists and some not so major that my conclusions from the recitals heard here convinced me that little has changed; i. e., the odds of hearing a great performance out of the of recitals presented, notwithstanding their quantity, were few and far between

Craig Cramer on Tuesday (23rd) proved to be one of those lucky exceptions. Dr. Cramer gave a very fine recital that was played with technical mastery and interesting programming on the kind of organ that potentially can be absolutely breathtaking. Dr. Cramer gave us a programme obviously tailor made for his audience. Of the four composers listed only one had even a remotely recognisable name, the other three were most likely unknown to most of even this audience of almost exclusively organists. Nevertheless, that fortunately did not preclude their worth, mostly, as recital pieces or of the large instrument of South Church upon which they were played.
Dr. Cramer began with a lovely work by a composer, who because he was distinctively and almost exclusively and organ composer: Auguste Fauchard (1881-1975 http://www.musimem.com/Fauchard.htm) His Le Mystere de Noël Shows all the trappings of his composition teachers, d’Indy and Vierne, and by osmosis, Franck. It is a set of variations on the chant “Jesu Redemptor omnium,” a Christmas hymn. Also in keeping with the Franck School it requires large hand stretches which can be especially daunting for someone with small hands. This special technical demand didn’t seem to phase Dr. Cramer who executed the work with aplomb, making good use of the colouristic capabilities of the organ including the use of the Zimbelstern in the 4th, or “Star” variation.

The two consequential pieces were at best curiosities. Toni Zahnbrecher (b. 1959) composed the Introduction, Scherzo and Fugue on B-E-A-T-E in 1993, but sounds more like 1893. Actually, it was quite refreshing to hear a work that was well written with adequate contrapuntal skill and a well chosen resulting harmonic language. Dr. Cramer has become a champion of this composer, and of this work in particular. He could certainly do a lot worse in light of the tripe that passes for serious music currently being written for the organ and that the AGO pays for.

The Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) Prelude and Fugue on “O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid” (“O Sadness, O Suffering Heart) is from a set of six chorale prelude written in the late 1880’s. It was interesting mainly because Smyth was one of that rare breed — a woman composer of the 19th Century who was also highly respected (she was made DBE in 1922); sort of the Clara Schumann of England, except she was much more politically active. The piece served as a pleasant enough a diversion from what had preceded and what was to come, namely the Sonata #2 in d, Op. 60 by Max Reger (1873-1916), the only composer on the programme with any familiarity to a general public.

Reger is relatively popular among organists; he was one of that select group of major composers (Bach, Franck and later Messiaen) for whom the organ was their primary instrument. The Second Sonata is typically Reger in so much as it is big, harmonically chromatic, and contrapuntally very complex. Dr. Cramer took this monster and wrestled it to the ground; but, not without a fight, or so it should receive as proper justification. From the piles of sound in the first movement to the sublime intimacy of the second to the overwhelming complexity and monumental conclusion of the final movement Dr. Cramer was not afraid to overpower us with the majesty of that resplendent instrument. It was a very nicely played recital. Whatever quibbles I may have about not playing from memory and console positioning are moot since Dr. Cramer was playing for other organists, who often don’t get to see the performer at all.

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