ALBRIGHT: The King of Instruments — A Parade of Music and Verse for Organ and Narrator. PERSICHETTI: Sonata for Organ, op. 86. Drop, Drop Slow Tears. ADLER: Xenia, A Dialogue for Organ and Percussion. COOPER: Variants for Organ.
David Craighead, organ; Eugene Haun, narrator; Gordon Stout, percussion.
Crystal Records CD181 TT: 55:22

Manual transmission, and we're off! Other than those with a large, available discography and those with whom I've worked, I don't know much about organists or organs. Those players really into the instrument strike me as home hobbyists, ready to rebuild an instrument from old parts. I suppose a lot of organists, particularly those employed by churches, willingly dive into deeps of the cabinet to cut down on repair costs and times. I often think of amateur plumbers and electricians as well as of model-airplane builders.

I've always liked the late David Craighead, mainly because of his repertoire, which included many Modern and contemporary scores -- musical areas that strongly interest me. Craighead could cut through the knottiest score with performances that let you know that the music made sense to at least somebody. He also generously put his talent at the service of composers both noted and obscure. A program like the one on this CD typified him.

Composer, virtuoso organist, and a leader of the ragtime and stride revival of the Sixties, William Albright shone as a bright gem on the University of Michigan faculty when I studied there. He and William Bolcom constituted a stellar double act in the composition department. The new-music crowd (which I ran with) eagerly anticipated their latest work or concert. Despite a relatively early death, Albright accomplished a lot -- a great career cut short. He wrote startlingly original organ music, even compared to Messiaen, and his imagination spanned a huge range of artistic reference -- proto- and early jazz to the dramas of William Butler Yeats. The King of Instruments highlights his idiosyncrasies. Commissioned for the installation of a new organ at the University of Notre Dame, the work avoids the usual for a celebration -- the grand and/or the somber. Instead, Albright has written a divertissement for "this monster who never breathes" (Stravinsky), a suite, a Carnival of Animals with Ogden-Nash-like verses on the various stops and manuals of the organ with more than a smidge of parody. For text, Albright chose Eugene Haun, poet and faculty member at Eastern Michigan University, literally just down the road from Ann Arbor in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I suspect that Albright had a lot to do with the verses himself, since the jokes are a bit inside for most non-organists, let alone non-musicians. In fact, the liner notes provide some basic terminology to give the listener a fighting chance at understanding the texts. Albright also packs with the music with jokes about the organ repertoire, of which I got exactly one -- a reference to the famous Widor Toccata. Nevertheless, it doesn't really matter whether you get the jokes or not, since the music amuses all on its own. It easily introduces a listener to the organ compositions of this postwar master.

Vincent Persichetti, easily the best-known composer on the disc, in addition to his virtuoso skills at the piano took a serious performing interest in the organ as well. Craighead chooses two works. Drop, Drop Slow Tears is a choral-prelude on a hymn from Persichetti's important Hymns and Responses for the Church Year, a go-to collection for enterprising church-choir directors. However, the Sonata is the big piece on the program. Highly compressed, the three-movement score reuses and varies an extremely small kit of ideas throughout. I can't speak to how well it's written for the instrument -- although given Persichetti's M.O. and mastery of the instrument, I suspect extremely well -- but it certainly impresses as a composition, with an argument that demands and repays close attention.

I approached Samuel Adler's Xenia with a bit of unease, solely because of the presence of the percussion. I've heard so many lame, self-indulgent, audience-flagellating pieces in this genre, I held no very high expectations for this example. If I had waited to actually hear the piece, I would have saved myself a little Angst. Why Xenia? Adler, a native German long resident in the U.S., takes off from the Xenien, a sort of verse correspondence in epigram between the poets Goethe and Schiller. I've actually read these (in the original; I hope I've impressed you), and I fail to see the connection, except for the epigram part. Although there's plenty of wham-bok, the piece emphasizes timbral delicacy and flexibility. It also contains plenty of virtuosity, particularly from the percussionist. Indeed, I think one needs to both hear and see a performance, just to watch the percussionist get a workout. Aside from that, the invention is strong and surprising, and Adler never falls into the trap of cliché.

Paul Cooper calls his Variants as an "electronic piece for a traditional instrument," a description which hits the mark. He wanted to use the huge color capacity of the organ and its ability to clarify separate planes of musical activity, but to avoid the standard solutions. In that sense, he succeeds. However, I couldn't help asking myself why he just didn't write the electronic piece, other than to be able to say he did the other. In other words, the score failed to grip.

Crystal Records, a long-standing independent label on the West Coast, has over the years endeared itself to collectors by doing what small labels do better than big ones: seek out obscure, worthy repertoire. A strong entry in the Crystal catalogue

S.G.S. (May 2013)