Frank FERKO (b. 1950)
Leo SOWERBY (1895-1968)
David Schrader (organ)
rec. 24-26 August 2019, House of Hope Presbyterian Church, St. Paul (Ferko);
17-20 August 2020, St. Ita’s Catholic Church, Chicago (Sowerby)
CEDILLE RECORDS CDR90000204 [79:25 + 79:04]
As one of the major musical centers of the United States, Chicago has long been home to many important musicians. Cedille Records was founded in 1989 to showcase this wealth of talent and has featured such artists as Jennifer Koh, Rachel Barton Pine, and, in this case, David Schrader. In the process of recording such performers, Cedille has also sought to give prominence to Chicago-based composers. This two-disc set contains organ works by two of them, Frank Ferko and Leo Sowerby, although lately Frank Ferko has been spending his time in a variety of places.
Ferko has written in just about all forms, including “10-Minute Operas”, but is best known for his choral and organ music. His works combine a variety of influences: the French and American organ traditions, minimalism and the works of Messiaen. In his organ music, he has shown a great interest in works based on variation form. At the same time, he has written a number of vocal and organ works inspired by Hildegard of Bingen.
One of Ferko’s major Hildegard works is the Mass for Dedication, written for Christ Church in Winnetka, Illinois. It is based on one of Hildegard’s chants and is both imaginative and evocative. After an impressive Entrance, we are presented with a dramatic Offertory that also does not lack for humor. The Consecration section is interesting, but it is the succeeding Communion that is the high point of the Mass - slightly reminiscent of Messiaen but containing its own emotional variety. The mood is lightened by a joyful Finale.
Ferko’s fondness for variation form is heard to good advantage in two of the smaller pieces on this disc. Tired Old Nun is based on a plainchant Alleluia and features six variations in widely disparate styles. The Variations on a Hungarian Folksong is probably the best of the shorter pieces on the disc. Although it is originally a teaching piece, the composer derives so much from the basic material that one is truly impressed by his ability. Very different from these two pieces is the Symphonie Breve, simultaneously demonstrating the composer’s interest in Baroque procedures and in Minimalism. The opening andante movement is distinctive and exciting. The succeeding fast movement is less interesting, but things pick up with the severe chorale. The quality of this last movement made me wonder if Ferko is at his best when writing music that is rather severe in tone. This impression was strengthened by his programmatic use of perfect fifths and octaves in Angels, a chaconne inspired by Hildegard, and in the similarly-inspired Communion for an incomplete organ mass.
In Cedille’s efforts to feature music from Chicago, no composer has benefitted more than the late Leo Sowerby, going back to Paul Freeman’s two discs of Sowerby orchestral music released in the mid-90’s (review). Just in 2021 alone, we have already had a disc containing early Sowerby works (review) and a disc of his third piano trio (review ~ review~ review). As long-time Sowerby expert Francis Crociata points out in the notes to this disc, “…four of the five works Mr. Schrader selected for this CD would surely number among Sowerby’s dozen or so greatest hits…”. The earliest, Comes Autumn Time was written in a single afternoon in 1916 and was one of the pieces that brought Sowerby early fame and the distinction of being the first musician chosen to attend the American Academy in Rome (1921-1924). It is a programmatic evocation of Fall in Canada and is as fresh and appealing as when first written. While Sowerby was in Rome he befriended the young organist Fernando Germani and when the latter made his first American tour in 1931, he asked Sowerby to write a piece for the tour. The composer responded with Pageant (not to be confused with the later Pageant of Autumn). Germani was known for his pedal technique and while this feature is prominent in Pageant, but it is the quality of the variations that make it one of Sowerby’s “greatest hits”.
In the ten years after Pageant Sowerby’s organ music became more Baroque in inspiration, as evidenced by the Toccata of 1941. Toccatas are frequently swift and energetic, but Sowerby’s is more meditative and graceful than one would expect from the form. As to the March from the 1934 Suite for Organ, we can again quote Francis Crociata, “…two of Sowerby’s most frequently performed works are movements from the Suite for Organ…”. However, the March, which forms the fourth movement of the Suite, is not nearly as well-known, and this is unfortunate. Less march than processional, the work ranges through a surprising number of styles and emotions, enough for a symphonic poem. It should be as well-known as its two companions.
Sowerby’s 1931 Symphony for Organ is not only a monument among the composer’s organ works, but among American organ works in general. In its mixture of structural complexity and developmental mastery, it compares favorably with the organ symphonies of Widor and Vierne. By some standards, the opening movement, marked “Very broadly” can be seen as a typical sonata movement with two contrasting themes, but on closer examination it is seen to be a linear development of its basic material, intensifying slowly and with greater dynamism until the final statement. Emotionally, the movement has, as Mr. Crociata points out, “… as much in common with Mahler and Bruckner as with Bach, Franck, and Vierne…”. The second movement, marked “Fast and Sinister”, provides the perfect contrast to its predecessor. It is frequently performed by itself and I cannot resist quoting an unnamed organist’s statement that it is “…fast for the audience and sinister for the organist…”. It also provides a fine bridge to the last movement, a grand passacaglia-Sowerby’s favorite form. This movement is slightly reminiscent of the later Toccata mentioned above, in that it is a near-perfect example of its form at the same time that it is full of variety.
David Schrader has been a pillar of the Chicago music scene for forty years and this is his 26th recording for Cedille. In addition to his manifold early music activities (playing harpsichord, clavichord and fortepiano), he has not neglected more modern keyboard music. On this release he alternates easily between Ferko’s Minimalist, humorous and sacred qualities. It should also be mentioned that these works are performed on three different organs in the same church, that of House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul MN. and that Schrader handles all three instruments with equal facility. Schrader uses yet another organ, that of St. Ita’s Catholic Church in Chicago, for the Sowerby works and this is an excellent choice as the colors of this instrument lend themselves well to Sowerby’s music. His performances of the March and the Toccata are both spirited and well thought-out. I had more reservations about Pageant, which I compared with my old Naxos recording with David Craighead at St. Bartholomew’s in New York City. Craighead’s performance is more exciting and very well-paced, but its recording quality was questionable even in 1994. Schrader’s performance of the Symphony is more assured, and in terms of clarity and pacing, could not be bettered. The earliest work, Comes Autumn Time, is especially dependent on organ color and this brings up one of Schrader’s strong points: while Sowerby provided registrations for his organ works there is still room for personal choice and Schrader excels here.
These two discs also feature excellent recording of each instrument utilized and as each contains 79 minutes of music, they are certainly cost-effective. A final incentive to purchase is available for those who download the discs: the world premiere recording of Sowerby’s Two Sketches (1963). Given all this, there is really no reason for any fan of organ music or of American composers to miss these discs.
Music for Elizabeth Chapel [2007) [20:37]
1) I. Leoni [Chorale Variations] [6:34]
2) II. St. Elizabeth [Crusader’s Hymn] [7:28]
3) III. St. Anne [Toccata and Fugue] [6:29]
4) Variations on “Veni Creator Spiritus”  [11:11]
5) Angels — Chaconne for Organ [8:43]
Symphonie brève (1987) [12:35]
6) I. Andante [3:17]
7) II. Very fast, lightly [6:06]
8) III. Chorale [3:08]
9) Missa O Ecclesia: Communion (1995) [2:32]
10) Variations on a Hungarian Folk Tune (1994) [3:27]
11 Tired Old Nun 1996) [6:09]
Mass for Dedication (2002) [13 :26]
12) I. Entrance [2:45]
13) II. Offertory [1:33]
14) III. Consecration [1:53]
15) IV. Communion [3:11]
16) V. Finale [3:51]
1) Comes Autumn Time (1916) [6:39]
2) Pageant (1931) [12:21]
3) Toccata (1941) [7:59]
4) March from Suite for Organ (1934) [9:31]
Symphony in G major (1930-1931) [42:05]
5) I. Very broadly [20:20]
6) II. Fast and sinister [8:33]
7) III. Passacaglia [13:02]
Available on digital versions of the album only:
Two Sketches (1963) [8:21]
8) 1. Nostalgic [4:26]
9) 2. Fancy-Free [3:53]