MAJESTUS - The Great Organ of Washington National Cathedral

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MAJESTUS - The Great Organ of Washington National Cathedral - Scott Dettra (Organ) - Loft LRCD1114

This new release, the final recording of the Washington National Cathedral's Great Organ before its replacement (why?), was obviously made to impress. The title "Majestus" for one, the choice of cover photo of this massive cathedral itself, with its daunting towers well illuminated against the fading light of day, its back-cover warning about potential damage to your stereo equipment due to this recording's extreme dynamic range, and of course the selection of the organ works themselves, all impressive in their own very distinctive ways.

Aaron Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man
Marcel Dupré: Prelude and Fugue in B major, Op. 7
César Franck: Prière, Op. 20
Seth Bingham: Passacaglia, Op. 40
Herbert Howells: Rhapsody in C-sharp minor, Op. 17
Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings, Op. 11
William Walton: Crown Imperial
Healy Willan: Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue, Op. 149

The Fanfare for the Common Man opens the CD with a very loud bass drum and cymbal crash which not only justifies the warning message on the back-cover, but could also give unsuspecting household members quite a jolt, if the volume is set too high. The organ itself seems to depend on only two stops to replicate the brass sound from Copland's original. The 8' Trompette-en-Chamade and the Tuba Mirabilis. The air pressure flowing through those pipes is enough to convey the essence of the work and its uplifting spirit. The Passacaglia by Seth Bingham is a tremendous work. It uses the organ's extensive dynamic range by starting with a whisper, patiently and slowly building to a huge all-stops open climax, and then quietly ending the way it came in, with the organ sound seeming to drift from a mile off. The famous Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber is given the same treatment here. Its entry and exit are unearthly quiet for such a large instrument, and that sudden break, that silent pause, after the music reaches its zenith in the middle of the piece, is breathtaking in this vast empty space. For me, the highlight of the disc is the Crown Imperial by William Walton. Its that kind of piece that lends itself so well to the sound of a powerful organ in a large space. It seems that the Trompette-en-Chamade are used prominently again in this piece, but so are the rest of the organ's stops put on full display as the music leads to those glorious final chords.

The booklet contains a full list of all the stops on this four manual Skinner organ. It is not only a very powerful instrument, as organist Scott Dettra demonstrates, but it can also produce beautiful sounds when the proper stop combinations are employed, and this organist obviously knows those combinations very well. The Loft recording engineers fussed over many different microphone placements all over this vast space, to finally settle on only two microphones in the chancel, which capture perfectly the balance of power, clarity and reverberation.

Jean-Yves Duperron - September 2010