Recital Review Print

Pedagogical Links to the Romantic French Organ School: R. B. King at UNCG

September 28, 2003 - Greensboro, NC:

As the commodious new Department of Music building on the UNC-Greensboro campus neared completion, I wondered what the large silo-like or castle tower-like structure on its southwest end would house. Over two seasons, I have attended several contemporary chamber music programs in what is called the Organ Hall but heard the large Andover Opus 111 tracker organ only briefly, in one piece, until a September 28 recital by Robert Burns King.

Described in the program notes as a teaching instrument suitable for performing all styles of organ music, the 28-foot-high case encompasses nearly 2,000 individual tin and wood pipes distributed among 35 ranks controlled by three keyboards and a pedal board. Why this large instrument is housed in an elliptically-shaped room that has a seating capacity of 130 is a great mystery to me. The volume of the hall is, at best, barely 20% what one would expect, based on average chapels. The brick walls are roughly twelve-sided with a shallow inward curve and thick banners that can be lowered from the ceiling perimeter to adjust the acoustics.

All but three pieces on the program were late-19th through early-20th century French Romantic works. There are direct links between two of the composers and King. After playing the original tone sequence that was its basis, King launched into Louis Vierne's most popular piece, "Carillon de Westminster," Op. 54/6. It began with bright treble pipes but soon deployed the deep bass notes of the pedals. Almost all of the player's multi-limbed actions could be viewed by the audience since the console is "on stage." Dynamic swells were controlled by some small foot pedals above the pedals proper. This work is often called "the grandfather clock" piece because of its theme. The organist remarked that Vierne died during a service at Notre Dame at which his student (King's teacher) Maurice Duruflé was present.

To this occasional organ buff, only three of four chorale preludes for the liturgical year sounded familiar. Two Bach war-horses were English titles in the program: "Sleepers Awake! A Voice Astounds Us," S.645, and "Christ Lay in the Bonds of Death," S.625. The tunes are familiar from cantata recordings. These were nicely paced and phrased but warmer color than I expected. A search in New Grove II failed to turn up anything about Searle Wright (b.1918), whose Choral Prelude on Greensleeves is a delightful setting of an old chestnut. With tinkling like wind chimes and the suggestion of whirling, like a many-pointed star ornament, we were a world away from an austere North German-style instrument such as the Brombaugh Opus 31 organ in New Hope Presbyterian Church just north of Chapel Hill. What Xavier Darasse and Marie-Louise Jaquet-Langlais describe (in New Grove II ) as "rich polymodal harmonies" were very evident in Jean Langlais' setting of "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded." Loud passages shook the hall as shutters over the wooden pipes immediately above the keyboard were opened and closed.

Maurice Duruflé's Prelude in E-flat Minor, from his Suite, Op. 5, proved to be a challenging appetizer for the whole work. In New Grove II , Nicholas Kaye reports that "the highly varied Suite opens with a mystical, brooding Prelude and ends with a dazzling Toccata, one of (the composer's) most memorable pieces of organ writing." There was a sustained figure over plush bass notes in the pedals along with great swells of sound and considerable chromaticism. It was however rather too much to take in on first hearing.

The Trois chorals of César Franck "are large fantasias in which the chorale is not explicit, as in eighteenth century composers, but instead reveals itself as the piece unfolds," according to Michael Murray's notes to his recording of the composer's major organ works. The c.13 minute Chorale No. 3, in A Minor, with its lovely cantabile section, made a fitting end to King's recital and exploited the full dynamic range of the instrument. Despite a rousing and mercifully short forte section, there was quite a bit of what Harvey Grace, in Grove ( 5th ed.), calls "the cloying chromaticism that many... feel to be a debilitating quality in his later works."

I would love to hear King play the last two works on the Flentrop organ in St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Hope Valley, for it is an instrument designed for the French repertory and housed in sufficient space. Because of the limited volume of UNCG's Organ Hall, performers must take into consideration the wearying effects of any prolonged forte passages.