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Only 36 people (10% occupancy) gathered in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to hear the ECU Music Department recital of Johan Hermans, Professor at Hasselt Conservatoire and Organist of Hasselt Cathedral, both in the Belgian city of the same name, play the C. B. Fisk organ. The program, except for the first piece, by J. S. Bach, was all by composers with ties of one kind or another to Belgium. French-born Alexandre Guilmant studied with Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens; César Franck was born and educated in Liege; Flor Peeters was born in Tielen and educated at Mechelen.
The first piece was the E-flat major Prelude and Fugue, S. 552, from the Clavierübung III. This prelude and fugue are the bookends to the compositions on hymns associated with Luther’s Little Catechism of 1529 and may fairly be said to be Bach’s best musical statement of his understanding of the Trinity.
Hermans’s performance was extremely legato. He played with precision and self-assurance. In the extremely live acoustics of St. Paul’s a greater contrast in registrations between the divisions of the organ would have strengthened the effectiveness of the manual changes. The principal choruses of each of the manuals are so well developed that they are not especially different from each other. There was an interesting accelerando a measure or so before the end of the prelude. Whether this was intentional was not obvious. The fugue began at a fairly rapid tempo; the transition into the third part of the fugue was a little awkward, involving as it did a change in manuals and registration. The third part was taken much faster, a very fast tempo, but the playing continued to be precise.
The next selection was four movements from Guilmant’s Sonata No. 7 in F, Opus 89. The "Entrée" began fff and got louder. The result was acoustical overload of the room. The room sounded as if it was breaking up under the sheer volume of the organ in the same way a cheap pair of speakers distorts when pushed too hard. The result was both painful and unmusical. There was much of this playing during the concert; whenever the sound was forced, the ability to distinguish the playing as music completely disappeared. Any good organ is intended, in the words of the late John Fesperman, “to dazzle rich and poor alike.” Most of the time the Fisk was forced far beyond dazzling to a horrible, ear-splitting, headache-making unintelligible roar. The second movement, "Lento Assai," was played on comparatively soft stops with a registration that was very chime like to begin with. Hermans’s performance was polished and thought-out. The third movement, "Cantabile," shared the same fine qualities of the second movement, with a registration of flutes and a clarinet-sounding reed. In anticipation, I wrote a note to my companion by “Final,” the last movement of the Guilmant: “Brace yourself.” True to prediction the flood gates opened and the painful sound washed over us again, this time building to an even fierier climax.
Franck’s Choral No. 3 in A minor provided a relative relief between the Guilmant and the Flor Peeters that was to follow. The registrations were complicated and very skillful and Hermans has a suave keyboard style. His performance throughout appeared effortless, with his elbows quiet and close to his body and the minimum of gyrations with his feet as he pedaled.
Hermans put Flor Peeters’s Symphonic Phantasy Opus 13 into some perspective by explaining that Peeters had written and performed this piece at the age of 20 for his joint doctoral exam in both composition and performance. Much of the complexity and beauty of Peeters’s composition was lost to the roar of the organ and room.
Although Hermans is a world-class organist and the Fisk organ and the room at St. Paul’s appear to be world class on paper, this concert was not successful. The capability of the instrument to be played very loud and the long reverberation time of the room present serious challenges to any performer. No one can come to St. Paul’s with any preconceived ideas about what kind of sound a given registration may produce. From what I understand from conversations with others who have extensive experience actually playing the St. Paul’s Fisk, the best place to hear it is at the keydesk where the painful roar that the organ is capable of is not obvious. Such a condition requires the player to listen carefully from the room while a comrade plays using the proposed registrations. Perhaps Hermans, a substitute for the originally scheduled performer, will return when he can become more familiar with the actual sound of the organ in the room. In spite of the unpleasant distorted sound, it was clear that he is a performer with above-average digital skill combined with a sensitive understanding of the nuances of dramatic expression. Once he has had a chance to hear both the good and the bad that the Fisk and St. Paul’s are capable of, a return performance will be a not-to-be missed event.