by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, brought its season of Ann Stookey Memorial Organ Recitals and Choral Evensongs to a close Sunday afternoon, May 1, with what very well might have been the finest pairing of these collaborative musical events over the entire 2015-16 liturgical year. William Roslak played music by Charles Tournemire, John Cook, John Ireland and Cesar Franck on the church’s acclaimed 114-rank Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ at 4:30 p.m. Then at 5 p.m. parish music director Zachary Fritsch-Hemenway led the 60-member parish choir in a faithful rendering of the Book of Common Prayer’s Rite I Liturgy for Choral Evensong, singing music by Josef Rheinberger, Bernard Rose, E.C. Bairstow and Robert Walker.
Throughout the course of this liturgical season I’ve often found myself wondering why St. Paul’s Choral Evensong and its preceding solo organ recital work so well. Perhaps because the service that was celebrated May 1 was indeed rendered so near to flawlessly, it became increasingly clear as it progressed just why that was so.
It wasn’t just a matter of the circle, so to speak, being completed from the start with William Roslak’s organ recital to the close with the improvised organ postlude on the hymn “Come, Labor on,” played by Fritsch-Hemenway. There was something more going on than just that. That efficacy was the result of every individual part of the whole, both liturgical and musical, fitting seamlessly with all the other parts to form a totality far greater than the sum of all those individual parts.
The surging romantic music of the organ recital perfectly set the tone for the Victorian solemnity of the high church Anglican liturgy and music of Choral Evensong, a revelation of the Oxford Movement’s restoration of the ancient traditions of the Church in England.
Roslak offered a brilliant blast of fundamental pipe registrations at the start of Tournemire’s “Improvisation on the ‘Te Deum,’” its shifting, shimmering harmonies leading the listener through a thicket of tonal centers that mysteriously quieted and then regained strength in even greater splendor. Roslak’s playing was spot-on accurate and remarkable for its smooth changes of registrations.
Cook’s “Fanfare” is characterized by open intervals, syncopated rhythms and trumpet stops. Roslak caught its festive air with technical mastery and interpretive aplomb. He then evoked an old-fashioned style of organ registration — darkly romantic — for Ireland’s “Meditation on John Keble’s Rogationtide Hymn,” then brought the recital to a resounding finale with the sweeping chromatic harmonies of Franck’s “Piece Heroique.”
Choral Evensong began at the “Introit” with a beautifully modulated rendition of Josef Rheinberger’s “Bide with us, for evening shadows darken,” sung with touching delicacy in its original German. It was performed at the back of the church with the choir standing on the labyrinth, as the naturally resonating acoustics of the space enhanced the effect of the smoothly executed crescendos Fritsch-Hemenway elicited from his choristers.
The settings of the traditional texts of “The Magnificat” and “The Nunc Dimittis” were by Sir Edward Cuthbert Bairstow, one of the stalwart composers of the Church of England during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The former balanced moments of surpassing delicacy against those of thunderous majesty from the Virgin Mary’s hymn taken from the Gospel According to St. Luke. The latter, however, was darkly peaceful and warmly gracious in its phrasing of Simeon’s “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” Fritsch-Hemenway drew singing from his choristers that projected the words and music with sensitivity and strength.
Walker’s Anthem at the Offertory, “As the apple tree,” evoked the diminishing light of eventide in both its choral writing and organ accompaniment. The entire liturgy was linked together by the silver thread of Bernard Rose’s eloquent musical settings of all of Evensong’s Prayers, and organ scholar Joseph Russell accompanied the singing with sympathetic registrations and an intrepid technique.