Helzberg Hall, home of the Kansas City Symphony since 2011, is part of the double structure of the Kauffmann Center for the Performing Arts of Kansas City, MO, designed by Moshe Safdie. (The second theatre is for the local opera and ballet companies.) Since 2012 it has also been the home of the 102-rank Julia Irene Kauffman Organ. Built by the celebrated Casevent Frères (founded 1879) of Quebec, the organ is very much in the French style, which means—one could say the same about French orchestral music as well—it's all about the color, except when it's about the grandeur.
Jan Kraybill has impressive credentials as an organist, clinician and educator in the Kansas City/Independence region, with performances across the US and abroad as well. For the present release in addition to performing she writes the enlightening CD program notes on the ten French composers represented. (She is also the organist on the Kansas City Symphony's fine recording of the Enigma Variations on Reference Recordings, though it was recorded in Independence in 2011.) Although I miss a certain amount of rhythmic energy or flair in her performances, I appreciate her attention to the colors and to the range of possibilities of her instrument—impressively well captured by RR's recording and mastering engineer, Keith O. Johnson.
The music on this CD was written between 1862 and 1932: it's a fascinating sampling of a long-lived, greatly admired school of organist-composers. The program starts off "big" with the opening movement of Charles-Marie Widor's Symphony No. 6 for solo organ. (He wrote ten symphonies in the course of his 64-year career as "interim" organist of Paris' St-Sulpice church with its unsurpassed Cavaillé-Coll instrument.) This Allegro is not all thunder: in the course of its 9 minutes it shows the Kauffman organ's "many and varied reed choruses" and in general "the tonal range, clarity and power needed for this work," according to Kraybill's notes.
For a striking contrast, Florent Schmitt's brief Prayer/Prelude, evidently a world-premiere recording, is gentle, showcasing the Casavant's "very expressive string and flute ranks." What follows is the most "exotic" of the works on the program: Jehan Alain's 1931 Two Dances to Agni Yavishita (Hindu god of fire), with what might be called Orientalist harmonies and playful rhythms. (I hasten to add that the two pieces are more eerie than kitschy.) Joseph Bonnet's Concert Variations returns us to a more traditional style, with each variation providing a different range of organ colors.
I found Maurice Duruflé's Scherzo one of the most engaging works on the program. Despite its title, much of it is quiet and somber, alternating with more expectedly rhythmically lively passages. The somber music wins out. (Maybe that in itself is the "joke.") A Prelude and Fugue by Marcel Dupré excitingly moves from a restless opening (underlying rippling 16th-note triplets) to a grand climax in its rhythmically engaging 6/8 fugue.
César Franck's Pièce héroique is surely the most familiar work on the program to the general listener. Kraybill's performance is more brooding than fiery or fierce—in fact, more musing than brooding—but I was content to luxuriate in the Casevent's dark colors and seeming depths that are conjured up. The piece that follows is again in complete contrast: a Caprice that sounds—to the uninitiated—easy to play but is technically quite challenging, as Kraybill explains in her notes. The work is by Felix-Alexandre Guilmant, who (she informs us) once played forty concerts, without repeating a piece, on the gigantic organ at the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904, an instrument that was subsequently moved to Wanamaker's Department Store in Philadelphia, where it can still be heard.
As long as I'm including unusual biographical details, I'll add that our next composer, Louis Vierne, was organist of Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, for 37 years, and died at the console. Among his works are 24 Pièces de fantasie, from which Kraybill chooses Nos. 1, 4 and 3 of the first set of six: Prélude, Caprice and Intermezzo. All three have moments of caprice, or at least quirkiness, and are all attractive: as Kraybill explains, each piece is a "musical character-sketch dedicated to a friend or acquaintance." Finally, EugèneGigout's Grand-Choeurdialogué is "a musical conversation between two pipe organs or divisions of one organ." Kraybill explains how she has chosen among various ranks and divisions for the antiphonal effects. This is indeed a grand piece, though only six minutes in length: a fitting conclusion for the recital and the display of the new organ.
RR's sound is most impressive: clear and clean, with impressive though not extreme dynamic range (i.e., I could easily find a single setting that comfortably accommodated the loudest and quietest moments on the disc). The ambience is that of a concert hall with just a little reverberation (very unlike a cavernous cathedral space). Above all, the colors of the various ranks or voices are vividly distinguishable, and I often found myself hearing what I assume is the illusion of lower and higher ranks having a somewhat more forward or distant location than others. The booklet provides full organ specifications as well as Kraybill's excellent notes.