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Gustave Doré The Scottish Highland on the cover of a recording of Skinner Organ Rolls played on the Toledo Art Museum's Organ

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The Best Pipe Organ in Brooklyn put to the test by organist Ken Cowan

Greetings from Ken Cowan, currently a full-time Professor, head of the organ program at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music, and recitalist, who recorded this performance of Reger's Fantasy on the chorale "Hallelujah, Gott zu loben" on the rebuilt Kilgen organ at Our Lady of Refuge Catholic Church in Brooklyn, NY.

This Fantasy is a piece which normally might be associated with very large pipe organs, but at the urging of Joe Vitacco, it was taken on as a test case (and something of a dare) to see how much could be coaxed out of a modestly-sized, yet flexible instrument. Joe is a pipe-organ aficionado to rival any, and he was the major force behind the fundraising efforts needed to fund the restoration of this instrument. The organ at Our Lady of Refuge was one of thousands produced by the Kilgen firm in the '20s and '30s and was returned to optimum playing condition by the A.R. Schopp and Quimby Pipe Organ companies. The parish of Our Lady of Refuge is a diverse and friendly urban community led by Fr. Perry, who have supported a number of international luminaries of the pipe organ in recital in the two years since the completion of the organ project. One can hear the sounds of daily life in Brooklyn (sirens, buses, brakes and all) in the background of this recording.

 

The Fantasia on Hallelujah, Gott zu loben is essentially a tone poem inspired by the text of the German version of Psalm 146. (New International Version below:)

 

1 Praise the LORD. Praise the LORD, O my soul.

2 I will praise the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.

3 Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save.

4 When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.

5 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God,

6 the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them-- the LORD, who remains faithful forever.

7 He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free,

8 the LORD gives sight to the blind, the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down, the LORD loves the righteous.

9 The LORD watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

10 The LORD reigns forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the LORD.

 

The structure of the piece takes the form of a rather dazzling introduction, and six variations on theme of the German chorale. Each variation has a very different character and places the theme in various voices - sometimes in the bass, sometimes in the tenor or alto, sometimes in the soprano.  The final variation is a very dense, yet jubilant fugue, whose theme ultimately combines contrapuntally with the chorale theme, even in canon!

 

Reger's music tends to be very difficult to perform, both because of the technical demands placed on the instrumentalist, and his indications for wide-ranging yet very subtle, smooth dynamics and shaping. He went so far as to write the text of the psalm in the music, in order to point out which passages of music were intended to evoke the spirit of corresponding passages of text. I recall first hearing this piece on a recording made at Selby Abbey in the early 1960s by the Italian virtuoso Fernando Germani. It was exactly the sort of intricate, colorful and intense music which had always drawn me to make the organ my primary musical instrument. I learned to play the organ on a wonderful and inspiring Casavant instrument from 1927, which was not much larger than the Kilgen.  It would have never occurred to me in those days that the instrument I knew and loved would be "too small" for anything. So, in that spirit, the accompanying video is offered!

 

 Ken Cowan, Organist

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