William Bolcom (b.1938) needs little introduction to the concertgoing or record-buying public, and selections from his magnum opus for organ, Gospel Preludes (1979–84), have been frequent inclusions on organ recitals since their composition. Though a number of the individual preludes have been recorded, the complete set of 12 has not previously appeared on disc. Each prelude is based on aRead more traditional hymn tune, and the set is organized into four books of three preludes each.
These pieces are totally characteristic of Bolcom’s ultra-American eclectic compositional style: a seamless blend of traditional classical and avant-garde elements with gospel, folk, cabaret, and pop styles. Like his mammoth Songs of Innocence and Experience, the set of preludes is a good summation of Bolcom’s work, and in finally hearing the whole together one gets a sense of the large-scale design and balance at work. Each prelude is compelling in its own way, though particular gems are the unapologetically full gospel “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” the extended set of variations on Amazing Grace (invoking everything from the theater organ style to Bach’s canonic chorale variations), and the final “Free Fantasia on O Zion, Haste and How Firm a Foundation.” This last piece is often played on its own, but it gains its greatest impact as the conclusion to the whole set of preludes. It demonstrates Bolcom’s voice at its finest, as an atmospheric and very dissonant setting of the first hymn leads unexpectedly but inevitably to a jazzy, tonal presentation of the second.
Gregory Hand is professor of organ at the University of Iowa, where he follows in the footsteps of distinguished predecessors including organist-composer Gerhard Krapf and American-music champion Delbert Disselhorst. Hand plays with flair and conviction and is a terrific advocate for these pieces. The organ is the large Skinner instrument (1928, op. 634) of Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago. Recorded sound is excellent—the producer and engineer was the eminent organist Wolfgang Rübsam, one of the most widely recorded organ performers himself. (Rübsam’s recordings for Naxos of the complete organ works of Rheinberger are particularly superb.) This CD is an absolute must for fans of either organ music or of Bolcom, but I think almost anybody would enjoy these pieces.