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Raleigh's Edenton Street United Methodist Church is the home of a very large pipe organ built by the Canadian firm of Letourneau Organs. For Stephen Hamilton's recital, sponsored by the Central NC Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, the five-manual console controlling the organ's near-100 ranks of pipes was moved out of its usual position within the choir stalls to the center of the chancel. This made it possible to see more than one usually sees of an organist's technique; e.g., Hamilton's facile execution of the pedal trills in the opening work by Max Reger, and how he used his feet to help play the opening passages of César Franck's Choral No.1, written to be played by hands alone but only working that way if the player's hands are large enough.
Hamilton, Minister of Music Emeritus of New York City's Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal), chose his program to highlight many of the organ's colors. The first half began and closed with music by the titans of the German Romantic and Baroque eras: Reger and J.S. Bach. Two Reger works showed this great composer's expansive/bravura style and his more introspective writing; the Introduction and Passacaglia begins and ends with the full organ, while the Benedictus calls for the quietest sounds of the instrument as its principal tonal palette. (Of course, being Reger, the composer did have to include a middle 22-bar section of constant crescendo culminating in full-organ before the concluding quiet passage.) Hamilton played both works well, although his pauses for registration-changes between sections of the passacaglia hampered the music's flow. Playing the right-hand part of the passacaglia's final measures (where the tonality has turned from D minor to D Major) an octave higher than written served to add brilliance to the low-scored writing.
Next came two works (again, contrasts in volume) by Jean Langlais, one of France's celebrated blind organist-composers (1907-1991). His music is steeped in the atmosphere of plainsong; the Hymne d'actions de grâces "Te Deum" and the "Chant de Paix" which followed are two of Langlais' most frequently played works, for good reason. The "Te Deum," excerpted from the composer's Trois paraphrases grégoriennes, is a heavily-accented and rhythmically-driven exuberant work; the "Song of Peace" which followed was… well… peaceful. Hamilton's performances brought both works to life.
Music by Langlais' contemporary Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) followed, an excerpt from his cycle Les Corps glorieux, "Joie et clarté des corps glorieux." Messiaen used a rondo form complete with jazz-infused sonorities in a solo trumpet line to paint his interpretation of Matthew 13:43. Hamilton was at home with the intricacies of Messiaen's rhythms. The solo line was on the blatant side; the Letourneau organ's sound is reed-heavy, with the many ranks of trumpets and tubas tending to overpower the other voices.
The recital's first half concluded with an on-the-fast-side reading of J.S. Bach's "Great" C minor Prelude and Fugue, BWV 546. Played legato throughout, and with no manual changes for episodes without pedal lines, this music needed more articulation. The fugue began with one of those dominating reeds in the registration and continued without relief.
The best playing of the evening followed immediately after intermission. Hamilton gave a beautiful performance of Franck's Choral No.1 in E, its long melodic lines soaring appropriately, its intimate moments and its grandiose moments equally inspiring.
This was followed by Albert Alain's "Aria," one of a set of six pieces which Hamilton learned while studying with Marie-Claire Alain, Albert's daughter. This work, rather like a musette in character, featured the organ's Cromorne, that distinctively-French Baroque reed. Two works by Jehan Alain followed: his "Le jardin suspendu" and "Litanies." Alain prefaced each of these works with explanatory quotations which were, unfortunately, not provided. While each work can be appreciated as "pure music," the quotations which provide their inspiration make them far more understandable. The "Hanging Gardens" piece was exquisitely played, but the more-famous "Litanies" was rushed and not up to the level of playing in the rest of the recital.
How to end a recital of mostly-French organ music? With a wonderful French toccata, of course! Hamilton chose the first (in the key of B) of Marcel Dupré's Opus 7 – Three Preludes and Fugues. A tour-de-force for a master organist, this work by the man who taught several of the other composers on this program was played brilliantly.
It may be noted that most of this music was written with a more reverberant acoustic in mind than that of Edenton Street UMC. While the church already has the funds in hand to add the planned-but-not-yet-installed Antiphonal and Echo divisions to the organ, one wishes that they could spend some of that money on removing the expanse of carpet which covers the long aisles of the nave, and perhaps also adding an acoustical treatment to the walls which would allow the organ's sonorities (already hampered by the pipes being placed so that they speak not directly into the nave, but into the chancel) to expand rather than diminish as they travel the length of the room.