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Baroque Organ Dedication


By Kenneth Hoffman

AN ORGAN INAGURAL concert, by its very infrequence, is bound to attract attention. All the more so in the case of the most recent dedication in Cambridge the First Church`s new instrument marks the first appearacne in this country of an organ designed by the firm of Theodor Frobenius & Sons of Copenhagen.

If uncluttered design were any measure of greatness. Frobenius organs are destined for eternal admiration. The initial visual impression of the case brings in mind Indian River orange crates: the bright unstained wood is painfully stark against the somber interior of the church the separates encased divisions seem to fit together like toy blocks in sterile symmetry. The en Chamade ranks sparkle the new chrome.

Through the organ is unsuccessful usually, the placement was well-suited to the church's architecture. By locating the unit within the small left transept facing the rear sound is easily projected to the back of the nave, encircling the entire congregation. The registrations are those of a baroque organ with many mixtures available over a presumably powerful fundamental. The reed stops tone is too often a nasal shriek. This was not helped by some faulty voicing of the individual pipes. But the biggest disappointment is the pedal division. Even the thirty-two-foot Untersatz the loudest stopped-pipe normally employed is inadequate, it does not support the loud mixtures played from the manuals.

The program for the content might be called imaginative if only for the inclusion of Poulenc's Concerto in G Minor for Organ, Strings, and Tympani, James Johnson, Music Director of the church and organ soloist, has an impressive technique at his disposal. He tore right into the beginning of the Poulenc--a dramatic start with the volcanic sound of double bass and tympani joining the organ.

Gerald Moshell, to no one's surprise managed to secure nearly all of Harvard's best student string players. Their work in the difficult Poulenc piece was very solid: the occasional lapse in pitch during the high accompaniment passages was understandable. Poulenc juxtaposes short lyrical passages with pounding tuttis. The violius were especially sensitive to their phrasing in the gentler moments: but their lead was not followed by Johnson. Nonetheless, the performance was tremendously exciting--especially at the recapitulation of the opening chords that closes the work. The Poulenc deserves to be heard more often. Like the Saint-Saens Third Symphonyor Jongen Sinfonie Concertante, the scoring of organ and orchestra cuts down on possible presentation sites.

THE ORCHESTRA ALSO played for the Handel Organ Concerto No.4.Though hardly a weighty work, the sense of ensemble between soloist and orchestra displayed the piece to great advantage. Handel's fine sense of tone color was especially evident in the oboe parts, which were beautifully played. The first movement was lively, but Johnson's tempo in the Adagio lagged painfully, lacked phrasing, and made every step of the walking bass far too staccato.

A liberty taken with the final movement of the Handel was providing a chorus to intone the chorale upon which the movement is based. Since diction was near impossible given the echo, instrumental forces, and small number of singers, the effect was that of another organ coloration--a true vox humana--being added.

Johnson played a variety of solos in addition to the accompanied pieces. The Pachelbel Chaconne in F Minor was a conservative piece whose execution was marred only by some intolerable upper registrations. The most explicit demonstration of the Frobenius's various sounds was in a set of sixteenth-century dances published by Phalese. These sounded contrived in their flagrant, often unmusical exploitation of every available stop.

Perhaps it is only necessary that the organist become more familiar with the quirks of the Frobenius to produce a more enjoyable sound. (Johnson playing on the Busch-Reisinger's Flentrop is outstanding). But the problems of the Frobenius are noticeable: not enough foundation, raucous reeds, and questionable tone-regulation. The site for the instrument was promising, but the organ itself disappointing. It will be here for a long time--the previous instrument, a Hook and Hastings, lasted over 90 years.

IN ANY EVENT, the fact remains that the Frobenius is a well-crafted instrument, quite capable of fulfilling the church's sacred and secular functions. As a baroque organ (only the swell shutters and celeste belie this), its balance is too far off in favor of the noisy mixture stops, clearly a serious fault in a room with so little resonance.

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