Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Rafters Ring at Christ Church

Last evening was a feast of French organ music at Christ Church as part of the "Second Friday" recital series. Scott Turkington, organist at one of the three St. John's churches in Stamford (the RC one) was the artist; as usual, it was a treat for both eye and ear thanks to the video projection on the large movie screen on the chancel steps that enabled us all to watch as well as hear his outstanding performance.

The ever-popular "Allegro", the opening movement of Widor's "Symphonie VI", led off the program in rousing fashion. As readers of these pages may recall, this is the track that your scribe has worn out on many CDs by listening to it time and time again. It appears that he is in good company: according to what Scott told us, Widor himself tinkered with this piece for many years, constantly improving it and ultimately scoring it for organ and symphony orchestra. Scott's rendition was a little slower than what one often hears, as though he wanted to make us listen to the individual notes as well as the huge waves of sound. Your scribe wanted to shout "Bravo!" at the end, but thought it might be a little premature, as the program was only beginning.

The only non-French piece was one of the versions of the chorale "Herzlich Thut Mich Verlangen", the well-known "Passion Chorale" so often used by Bach in his "St. Matthew Passion", with which Johannes Brahms amused himself on his deathbed. Well, perhaps "amused" is not quite the right word, but it does seem as though Brahms kept on writing new versions of his farewell to the world, each no doubt billed as his "last piece" until its successor was written. Scott characterized the mood as Brahms "looking inwardly...his youth and bravura finished." And that was indeed the mood in which he ably performed it.

A very different musical farewell followed: Jehan Alain's "Litanies", written after the death of his sister at age 23. The constantly-repeated and embroidered theme becomes a mantra, like the repetitive phrases in the Roman Catholic liturgy for the departed. Brilliant, technically challenging, and acoustically thrilling, Alain's piece became, in effect, his own eulogy when he himself was killed at the age of 28 in World War II.

The musical mystic Charles Tournmire provided a bridge from death back to life in his Introit for Holy Saturday, which incorporates hints of the great Easter "Alleluia". Tournmire's music often seems muddy to your scribe's ear, but Scott played this piece with great sensitivity and clarity.

Then it was all merriment with Jean Langlais' "Pasticcio", which as Scott explained is "a pastiche of ideas, light and fun-filled." The catchy, rhythmic theme shows a playful side of Langlais not often heard.

A second Langlais work followed, a "Trio" modeled after Bach's organ trio sonatas. Light fluid movements in the manual parts interweave with a chorale-like melody played on the pedals using the 4' stops, so that all three voices are heard in the same vocal register. Langlais was part of a long tradition of blind French organists, and as your scribe watched Scott's hands fly from manual to manual, he could not but marvel at the genius and versatility of the composer.

A bonus piece was Paul Hindemith's "Adagio" from his first organ sonata. Hindemith taught at Yale for many years before his death in 1965, and Scott told us that performances of his music seemed to have died off with him. And in truth, it's been about four decades since your scribe last heard Hindemith in performance. Scott characterized his music as "cerebral but accessible," which is a very accurate description.

The grand finale was, appropriately enough, Louis Vierne's "Scherzo" and "Final" from his first organ symphony. The Scherzo is in A-B-A form, the middle section being a canon. Vierne, too, was blind, and reigned at the console of Notre Dame de Paris for many decades, always playing the Sunday afternoon organ recitals himself, and ending them with an improvisation on a theme submitted by someone else. As Scott told us, on the occasion of his 1,750th such recital Vierne keeled over, dead, as he was about to start his final improvisation. At first the noise his body made on the keyboards was taken by the audience as the opening of the piece. He died, Scott told us, as he would have wished to die: at the console of his beloved Cavaille-Coll organ.

But not before he'd written the "Final", of course. Another masterwork of French organ literature, this piece provided a fitting book-end for the Widor piece that began the program. Often used as a showpiece in the organ demonstrations at Washington Cathedral - and no doubt at many other places as well - this fiery, dynamic, driving toccata is one of the signature pieces of the French Romantic movement. Suffice it to say that Scott's bravura playing resulted in the bravos and standing ovation that your scribe had been ready to offer at the beginning of the program.

Afterwards, the usual reception in the Family Room gave us all a chance to meet and talk with Scott. The series will continue on December 12 with Christ Church's new organist and choirmaster, Jamie Hitel. It is good to know that this outstanding program of monthly recitals is continuing unabated under Jamie's leadership, as Christ Church has undoubtely the finest organ in Greenwich, if not perhaps in the whole State of Connecticut. The one at Woolsey Hall at Yale is larger, but your scribe would argue that the acoustics at Christ Church are better, and the organ placement likewise somewhat better than in New Haven, where some of the pipes are buried in chambers deep in the basement of the building. So thanks to the powers that be at Christ Church for continuing to share this incomparable instrument with the community in this way!


Blogger Leigh Russell said...

What a way to go. I wonder how long it was before the audience realised the organist was dead!

November 21, 2008 8:50 AM  
Blogger Bill Clark said...

Hi, Leigh!

I suspect the many people who were with him in the organ loft pulled his corpse off the keyboards pretty quickly. But I wonder who was the lucky soul to lean over the balcony and explain to the listeners below that the concert was over...and what he said. Somehow, "C'est fini, mesdames, messieurs" doesn't quite cut it, IMHO.

And, of course, one wonders what would have happened if they'd had a defribrilator handy up there by the console. I doubt Vierne would have been best pleased to wake up in hospital later on, his dramatic exit from the planet rescripted by the doctors. Bummer!

November 21, 2008 10:40 AM  

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