AMERICAN WORKS FOR ORGAN AND ORCHESTRA. BARBER: Toccata Festiva. PISTON: Prelude and Allegro. SOWERBY: Concertpiece. COLGRASS: Snow Walker

by Walter Simmons



AMERICAN WORKS FOR ORGAN AND ORCHESTRA · David Schrader (org); Carlos Kalmar, cond; Grant Park Orchestra · CEDILLE CDR-90000 063 (65:15)

BARBER: Toccata Festiva. PISTON: Prelude and Allegro. SOWERBY: Concertpiece. COLGRASS: Snow Walker

This new release is the first recording to feature the Casavant Frères organ built during the early 1990s for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall. The beautifully-produced recording highlights four substantial and worthwhile American works written between 1943 and 1990, in brilliant performances by organist David Schrader with the Grant Park Orchestra (which offers summer concerts in Chicago) conducted by the Uruguayan-born, Viennese-trained Carlos Kalmar. Hence this disc will be of great interest to aficionados of organ music, as well as to those with a special interest in American music or in these four Pulitzer Prize-winning composers.

Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festiva was composed in 1960 to commemorate the installation of a new organ donated by Mary Curtis Bok Zimbalist to Philadelphia’s Academy of Music. (At a cost of $150,000, the Aeolian-Skinner was the largest movable pipe organ in the world at the time.) Her gift also included the commissioning of a celebratory piece of music for the occasion. Barber’s Toccata is one of his very few works that have the ring of a “potboiler” (although, in fact, Barber declined the fee offered by his devoted, long-time patron). That is, its fabrication of hearty good cheer seems a tad forced, as it works through material strongly reminiscent of previous successes, most notably, Knoxville (the justly beloved vocal work whose deeply reflective nostalgia is almost diametrically opposed to the extroverted character of this showpiece). Nevertheless, Barber’s workmanship was never less than meticulous, and the resulting composition fulfills its requirements with impeccable panache. As fine as this performance and recording may be, however, those listeners whose interest is limited to the Barber will probably be happier with the original recording that featured E. Power Biggs with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy. I believe that this rendition is still available on an all-Barber CD reissue.

Speaking of Biggs, Walter Piston’s Prelude and Allegro was commissioned in 1943 by the esteemed organist for one of his weekly radio broadcasts. The Preludeoffers a warmly expressive, long-lined polyphony that calls Barber’s own style to mind; the Allegro cuts less deeply than the opening, and displays the briskly vigorous, syncopated counterpoint generally associated with its composer.

The music of Leo Sowerby (1895-1968), a prolific composer based for many years in Chicago, has never gained a strong foothold with the listening public, although there have been recent efforts to prompt a reconsideration of his output. From my perspective, Sowerby’s music, like that of many Mid-Western composers, suffers from a neutrality of affect, untroubled by either spiritual or emotional conflict. This 18-minute Concertpiece, dating from 1951,is representative of such a characterization: a robust, full-throated fantasia-like piece that falls loosely into three sections. Simple modal thematic material is developed into rather elaborate, chromatic textures. Post-romantic in its musical language, but abstract in structure, the work is unavoidably comparable to Howard Hanson’s Concerto for Organ, Harp, and Strings, completed just ten years earlier. The works cover very similar terrain, expressively and stylistically, although Hanson’s offers a stronger personal profile.

The most recent composition is Snow Walker, written in 1990 by Michael Colgrass. Colgrass, who turned 70 this year, lived for some time among the Inuit in northern Canada. “Snow Walker” is apparently an Inuit image that represents death and resurrection. In five movements, this 22-minute work was inspired by Inuit mythology and by the composer’s impressions of the Arctic. Like much music of the 1990s, Snow Walker is oriented around gesture and sonority, rather than by the dynamics of harmonic melody, meter, or tonality. For me a little of this sort of thing goes a long way; each time I listened to the piece, my interest had waned by the fourth section. (Actually, I suspect that Colgrass’s interest waned by the fourth section.) However, the first three sections are quite compelling in their preternatural way. The first movement, “Polar Landscape,” is enormously evocative; the second attempts to simulate a type of Inuit singing that resembles an unearthly sort of laughter; the third, entitled, “The Whispering Voices of the Spirits Who Ride with the Lights in the Sky,” is almost terrifying in its eeriness.

In summary, this will be a welcome acquisition for those whose interests embrace this repertoire.