American Works For
David Schrader, Organ
CD Number: Cedille CDR 90000 063
This 2002 release offers a couple of "firsts": the first commercial recording of Chicago's estimable Grant Park Orchestra (an earlier CD was sold by the Grant Park Music Festival itself) and the first recording of the Casavant Frères organ installed in 1998 in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's home, Orchestra Hall. More important, it offers splendid performances of important American music in sumptuous sound.
Samuel Barber's Toccata Festiva was written in 1960 to celebrate another organ installation, in the Philadelphia Orchestra's Academy of Music, where Columbia recorded the piece with Eugene Ormandy and E. Power Biggs. The title may be a bit misleading: the work is much more than a splashy occasional piece, though it does display the organ rather spectacularly, with a wide range of colors and a virtuoso cadenza for pedals alone. Alternately dramatic and quietly lyrical, completely recognizable as a Barber piece, the Toccata is a kind of fantasia on motifs stated near the beginning, including a haunting waltz-like fragment, with rhythmic patterns that are trickier than they seem at first. The work deserves a great deal more recognition than it has received, though that may be changing. I haven't heard two new recordings made in Britain, but one on Naxos, conducted by Marin Alsop, who has a special affinity for Barber, was recently The Gramophone's "CD of the Month," and one on the Linn label, with Raymond Leppard, has received excellent notices as well. (Thomas Trotter and Gillian Weir are the respective organists; the Naxos is all-Barber, while the Linn offers the Poulenc Concerto and a rarity, a Concertino by Pierre Petit.)
Biggs/Ormandy, at 13' 48", take the piece a full minute faster than Schrader/Kalmar (indeed faster than any other version I've seen listed — Leppard takes over 16"!) and certainly offer an exciting performance. On the original LP, the engineers clearly separate organ from orchestra and tend to pinpoint instrumental soloists. But Cedille, not surprisingly, provides an overall superior sound, warmer and richer, with the organ's lowest notes much more powerfully registered.
Walter Piston's 1943 Prelude and Allegro — which was also recorded by Biggs, on 78s with Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony — is a much more restrained affair. According to Cedille's program notes, a Piston biographer finds the Prelude expressing the "tragedy" of World War II and the Allegro (which joins it without pause) "the determination to win it," but some listeners will surely find it hard to attach any program to this music. The Prelude is, to be sure, solemn, with beautifully seamless blending of organ and string sounds (especially on the present recording)—but it's a world apart from the heart-on-sleeve emotionalism of, say, Barber's Adagio for Strings. The more vigorous Allegro has thematic material that seems suitable for a fugue, but we get rondo-like recurrences instead, with more alternation of strings and organ. The two movements together give us a sober New Englander's interesting take on a baroque slow-fast format.
Leo Sowerby, who lived most of his creative life in Chicago, was an organist as well as composer, writing over 50 pieces for that instrument, a number of them in duet with a string or brass instrument. The 1951 Concertpiece, an 18-minute one-movement concerto with an overall faster-slower-faster structure, opens with an almost jaunty march-like theme, lightly scored at first but leading to Big Organ/full orchestra passages. As the sound subsides and the tempo slows, the organ takes over for what feels like a moody improvisation on the opening theme. Eventually the strings come in with comments of their own, but after a swelling climax the organ returns us to a meditative mood. Eventually a clarinet solo (the only noticeable woodwind appearance in a piece dominated by brass and strings) leads to some grand restatements of the opening theme, with soaring trumpet and extremely muscular organ sounds providing a spectacular finish. Overall, Sowerby uses the organ in the most traditional way of any of the composers on this disc — traditional in the sense of harking back to the style of the late-19th-century French organ masters.
Most contemporary in sound, on the other hand, is the final work on the disc, Michael Colgrass's 1990 Snow Walker. The title is taken from a book about the Inuit by Farley Mowat (most famous for Never Cry Wolf), and the piece is a frankly programmatic one in five connected movements bearing titles like "Polar Landscape" and "Ice and Light." Occasionally there is a pretty literal portrayal—a trombone baying like a wolf—but more often we get chord clusters suggesting the grandeur of Arctic expanses, or swirls of sound suggesting wind. The brief, boistrous second movement, "Throat-singing, with Laughter," sounds like Messaien at his most playful, but otherwise one is more likely to recall Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Anartica (which has a grand organ passage itself), or even the eeriness of the "Painted Desert" section of the Grand Canyon Suite. I don't mean to imply that Snow Walker is simply derivative: there are many distinctive sonorities, with the organ completely integrated into the glittering, shimmering, occasionally glowering sounds of the orchestra. Parts of the piece are hushed (recalling Colgrass's own As Quiet As...), while the finale has prominent drums and some wild outbursts from both soloist and orchestra.
Chicago-based David Schrader, who has frequently appeared with the CSO and made quite a few recordings for Cedille (notably of Bach), extracts a formidable range of sound from the Orchestra Hall organ, and the Grant Park Orchestra, under its Principal Conductor, Austrian-Uruguayan Carlos Kalmar, partners him quite impressively. (The orchestra, formed in 1943 to provide free outdoor concerts to the Chicago public, is made up of distinguished area musicians and has been led by the likes of Leonard Slatkin and David Zinman. This summer they have moved into a new Frank-Gehry-designed pavilion for their 10-week festival.) Cedille's sound, as I've already mentioned, is remarkably fine, and their booklet, in addition to the usual notes on the composers and artists, provides a lengthy essay on the design and installation of the organ itself, along with a full list of stops.