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British-born organist John Scott brought his brand of brilliant organ playing to St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Greenville, North Carolina, on Friday evening, January 27. In the near-capacity crowd were attendees of the 10th annual Religious Arts Festival, sponsored by East Carolina University, and southeast regional members of the Anglican Association of Musicians, members of St. Paul's, and the ECU community. For such an eclectic audience, John Scott played an equally-eclectic program on the fine new Perkins and Wells Memorial Organ, C. B. Fisk, Op. 126. The recital continued the inaugural year of the Fisk in grand style.
John Scott displayed plenty of fireworks and finesse, exploiting the tonal resources of the Fisk organ to the fullest extent possible. His considerable technique was undoubtedly aided by the Fisk firm's patented servo-pneumatic playing action, which makes playing on large stop combinations less cumbersome.
After introductions eventually ushered the artist in through the audience (seated facing each other in the nave), the program commenced with Festival Fanfare by English composer Kenneth Leighton. Written in the tradition of the extended fanfare like that by John Cook, rather than the brief, more idiomatic fanfares of Arthur Bliss or Francis Jackson, the composition was a good match for Scott's technical abilities but disappointed the listener by its academic, almost monotonous treatment of rhythms and absence of any dramatic progression.
George Frederic Handel's popular Concerto No. 4 from Op. 4 was played delicately and amply embellished but not to the point of excess. In particular, the closing "Presto" was played with considerable grace in the context of a brisk tempo. We did not learn whose transcriptions of the Handel (which originally involved a small orchestra) or of the Mozart pieces (heard later in the program) Scott used. It was a pity that, save for announcing the amusing encore by Guy Bovet at the end, Scott did not address the audience. St. Paul's is very well set up for oral commentary at concerts, making it an asset for an educational environment like ECU. For example, it would have been insightful to know if Scott's embellishments were his own or Handel's.
Johann Sebastian Bach was represented by two sacred compositions from the third part of Das Clavierübung and one secular work. The chorale prelude "Dies sind die heiligen zehn Gebot," S.678, was played with great depth and an unanticipated sensitivity. The treacherous setting of "Jesus Christus unser Heiland," S.688, was well-negotiated, with a clockwork approach to tempo. Scott gave the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, S.543, a convincing reading, despite some minor quirks. In the Prelude an 8-foot Pedal reed overtook the delicate plenum of the Positif. The opening registration used for the Fugue would have better suited the second section of the Prelude and would have done well for the Fugue if not for the clipped pedal articulation, which too frequently kept the 16-foot Pedal reed from speaking adequately. Scott allowed the tempo to creep up a bit about halfway through the Fugue, eventually giving the second half of the Fugue a bit more buoyancy and grace.
After a sublime reading of Mozart's Andante in C, K.356, Scott immediately launched into another organ transcription of a Mozart composition, the Fantasy in F minor, K.608, originally commissioned for a mechanical flute clock. Eschewing an attempt to replicate the miniature sonority of the 18th-century musical novelty in the outer sections, the performer employed the organ's grand sound for a tour de force of precision and drama.
Two movements from Winston-Salem composer Dan Locklair's Rubrics followed the intermission and some emergency tuning. "The Peace may be exchanged" flowed like extemporaneous music-making, with the combined sonorities of Voix célestes and Montre creating one of the most agreeable registrations of the evening. To this listener, however, "The people respond – Amen!" needed far more joie de vivre, which this performer is surely capable of, in abundance.
Scott showcased sensitive, lyrical playing in Mendelssohn's infrequently-performed Andante with Variations. He held nothing back at all in Reger's Introduction and Passacaglia, in which the Fisk grands jeux roared at the listeners like an untamed lion. In contrast to the Introduction, the Passacaglia was treated to an unwavering tempo throughout. The contemporary Dutch composer Ad Wammes was represented by his gem, Miroir, an organ piece gaining rapid popularity through performances by Scott and others. Its perpetual-motion structure suited Scott perfectly, with an ostinato pattern clearly audible in a delightfully transparent texture.
For an organ indebted to the work of French organ builder Cavaillé-Coll, it was surprising that only one French piece was programmed: the Variations sur un Noël of Marcel Dupré that concluded the program. Dupré's registration indications and compositional techniques pushed beyond the conventional use of the French symphonic organ as represented by Widor, Guilmant, and Vierne. The Fisk organ admirably meets the challenge of Dupré's music, although I missed the eeriness of the Voix humaine in the eighth variation. The Fugue built to a suitable climax, but the Finale was played far too briskly to catch fire, the manual's repeated notes frequently getting lost in the muddle. This is also true on Scott's recording of this same work on his otherwise outstanding recording of Dupré's organ music at St. Paul's, London. At a tick or two slower, this phenomenal movement would still have all the crackle and flair to showcase a brilliant organist at a word-class organ.