CD Review: Old South Brass, Organ & Tympani

by Jonathan Ambrosino

Often overlooked because of its proximity to H.H. Richardson’s landmark Trinity Church, Old South Church in Boston may well be the city’s most significant Victorian Gothic ecclesiastical building. Designed by Cummings & Sears and completed in 1875, the Church is a Ruskinian scholar’s dream: florid ornamentation, copious stenciling, and virtually no two capitals, rosettes or corbels alike. It also contains one of Boston’s most interesting organ installations. At its core is Skinner Opus 308, originally installed in the St. Paul Municipal Auditorium in Minnesota. A fancy job even by Skinner standards, Opus 308 contained Great, Swell, Choir, Solo, String and Pedal divisions, with not only the expected big-organ luxuries (three 32’s, full-length 16’ reeds on all manuals, four reed choruses and every possible Skinner solo color), but the exotic extras as well (seven-foot grand piano, xylophone, semi-automatic player). Although its specification is a pared-down version of Skinner’s mammoth 145-rank job for Cleveland’s Public Auditorium, Opus 308 was undoubtedly more successful than its big brother. Immaculately installed in the ceiling (unlike Cleveland’s disadvantageous side-stage placement), the St. Paul organ spoke directly into its acoustical environment, where its large scales, open-toe voicing, high pressures and ample pedal converged to create what was arguably Skinner’s most thrilling municipal organ.

In its original home, Opus 308 was highly popular for about a decade. But like many a municipal organ, it lost the battle to Sunday-afternoon radio, falling into disuse and eventual silence. A few weeks before the Auditorium was to be razed in 1982 (and the organ with it), Old South Church learned of the instrument. The news was fortuitous, as the parish had been seeking a way to recapture the spirit of its 1915 Skinner, Opus 231, which was replaced in 1968. In a flash, the Church decided to save Opus 308, pulling together a team of restorers who got the organ out just a few hours short of the wrecking ball. It was installed at Old South in 1985; from 1988 to 1990 it was entirely rebuilt by Nelson Barden Associates under the direction of Old South’s Organist and Choirmaster Frederick A. MacArthur, with Joseph Dzeda, the late Jason McKown, and Jack Bethards as consultants. MacArthur himself superintended all of the tonal finishing, with voicers Steuart Goodwin (who also played a large role in the tonal restoration of the Mormon Tabernacle Æolian-Skinner) and Daniel Kingman (assistant tonal director at Austin Organs, Inc.).

In addition to being the organ’s first recording, Old South Brass commemorates the annual New Year’s Eve organ and brass concerts Old South has given since 1987. These identical back-to-back programs begin in the early evening and finish just before midnight, consisting of accessible music suited to a festive public at large. The organ-brass scores were arranged by the late George Faxon, who became Artist-in-Residence at Old South upon retiring from Trinity Church in 1980. As on this disc, every concert begins with the National Anthem and concludes with Auld Lang Syne, each retrofitted with Faxon’s inventive harmonic detours. Faxon’s stars and spangles in the National Anthem always catch the audience by surprise (“accomplished without any true modulation, don’t you know,” he once confided proudly). This foretaste of sophistication sets up an odd edge in the crowd, indicating that more than the usual Town Hall fare may be in store.

Old South Brass includes all the big pieces the group has performed over the past seven years, plus a group of organ solos. The recorded quality is not only superb, but remarkably faithful to what one hears in the Church. In person, the chorus reeds dominate the ensemble more than the mixtures, and if anything, the 32’s stir up more thunder, since they so easily shake the Church’s wooden floor (and those who stand upon it). But the real refreshment comes from how well this organ stands up to brass. Most organs seem to fade away when a simple brass quintet starts playing. While the Old South Skinner is not necessarily loud, it is solidly powerful in ways the brass are not. Its beefy mid-range and bass are not masked by the addition of the upperwork, and whereas its barbaric high-pressure 32’-16’-8’-4’ pedal reed readily dominates the organ alone, the stop fits under the combined ensemble with breathtaking grandeur.

Equally refreshing is the musical approach. These musicians play the gamut, and play it all well. Every piece is given a treatment entirely in keeping with its nature: the fun, popular selections are played with flair and élan; the challenging ones elicit virtuoso playing; and the more serious works, especially the Vierne, Dupré and Faxon Toccata, receive compassionate, insightful readings. Conductor Roger Voisin chooses tempi which sound completely natural; rarely do the brass players let the meter sag or lose their ensemble. And despite many moments of bombast, the quieter brass playing is lyrical and expressive, so that one enjoys the disc’s loud-louder-loudest aspect, rather than tiring of it. The organ solos offer additional repose, while displaying Fred MacArthur at his best: controlled, fluid, subtle, and in excellent taste besides. After all, how many can play a lullaby like Roy Perry’s Christos Patterakis and keep it from devolving into hokum? MacArthur knows how to make a modest tune powerful, even when he veils the solo line behind the accompaniment. The mechanical side of the organ appears invisible: no rhythmic hitches, no slight pauses to change registration, natural and logical shaping with the swell boxes. And when it seems that all this polish might come at the expense of rhythmic energy, MacArthur delivers spirited playing—especially of the Faxon Toccata, imparting real drive and keeping right on top of the notes.

The disc offers rousing performances of many standard organ-brass arrangements, among them Pomp & Circumstance #1, Praise the Lord with Drums and Cymbals, Stars and Stripes Forever. Certain arrangements are more audacious. In Ride of the Valkyries, George Faxon has given the brass most of the complicated string parts with novel and spectacular results. To these ears, the 1812 Overture is the disc’s unquestionable tour-de-force. Elegantly and logically arranged, Faxon’s transcription leaves one hardly missing the orchestral sonorities, and MacArthur devises a cannon effect worthy of the clichéd CD bass warnings. Furthermore, the performance is a model of pacing. After ever-growing intensity in the music and the playing, the chorale theme returns on full brass, full organ and the monstrous pedal reed, creating as grand an ensemble as one could ever wish to hear through loudspeakers.

Two of the disc’s less familiar offerings were written by Frenchmen as memorials. Dupré Poème Heroïque was written in 1937 for the restoration of Verdun Cathedral, dedicated to “not only the church but the district, where one million battle deaths had taken place in World War I,”(Michael Murray). This eloquent piece begins with a bold thematic statement in the brass, accompanied by the organ and snare drum. Several themes follow, some on the organ, others on solo trumpet. A dazzling conclusion combines most of the tunes against a march motif. Equally as fascinating, but more extroverted, is the rarely-heard Vierne Marche Triomphale Centenaire de Napoléon I (Opus 16), a piece heroic enough to accompany Napoleon and the entire French Navy. The main theme is developed extensively, punctuated by fanfares and flourishes; the middle section includes a typical French “snakes-in-the-sewer” polytonal dialogue between organ and distant brass; and the main theme returns in a heraldic canonical variation, building to (yet another) enormous finale. For seismic variety, MacArthur adds the 32’ reed for the last several measures, and the 32’ Open Wood for the final note, creating an astonishing sense of finality.

The Nancy Plummer Faxon works reflect the composer in some especially noteworthy moments. It is difficult to pinpoint why her Fanfare #2 is so moving; this simple prelude could hardly be more straightforward or uncomplicated in its harmonic language, and yet it is a gorgeous musical interlude. The Toccata for solo organ is Mrs. Faxon’s at her best, a dramatic, tightly organized and entirely American piece of music borne of a simple theme and a complicated accompanimental motif. It outranks Sowerby and Farnam both, and deserves a wider exposure outside of Boston music circles. MacArthur does it complete justice.

Criticisms of this disc are few. The Elgar suffers from flagging tempi and lack of ensemble; the 32’ Bombarde does cap every big piece; and while there is sufficient variety in mood, four or five pieces could have been omitted without detriment (or simply saved for the next recording project). But these are minor quibbles, since the disc so clearly achieves what it sets out to do. Old South Brass delivers excellent music-making, good durability over repeated listening and many moments of unforgettable grandeur. A must-have.