Crista Miller: Bonjour and Willkommen
The 19th pipe organ built by Martin Paso and Associates and housed in Houston’s relatively new Co‑Cathedral of the Sacred Heart encompasses a colourful and varied tonal scheme that allows for timbrally authentic renderings of both French and German repertoire. Certainly the venue’s five-second acoustical decay allows for contrapuntal details to emerge clearly, while, at the same time, massive tuttis never turn muddy or indistinct. More significantly, Crista Miller’s two separate French and German programmes covering a wide stylistic range stand out for the organist’s effortless virtuosity and musical intelligence. Her transparent textures, clean articulation and forward-moving tempos enliven Franck’s third Choral, which can sound turgid in the wrong hands. Similar interpretative strengths impressively play out in the same composer’s Prelude, fugue et variation, while her registrations in the finale of Vierne’s Third Organ Symphony convey a lighter and leaner orchestral image than in Jeremy Filsell’s comparatively massive rendition (Signum, 2/06).
Her mobile Andante cantabile from Widor’s Fourth Organ Symphony is followed by the work’s Scherzo, where the chromatic filigree takes gentle wing; a pity that Miller didn’t have room for the whole symphony. Each movement in Couperin’s Mass is preceded by its corresponding plainchant, intoned by four male singers, while female singers assume the same honours for Scheidemann’s Magnificat. Miller plays the Bruhns and Sweelinck works outstandingly well and clearly relishes their improvisatory paths and harmonic surprises. With way too many performances of the Bach D major Prelude and Fugue in the catalogue that drag and sag, it’s a pleasure to experience Miller’s shapely animation. Her graceful Mendelssohn and dramatically fervent Liszt are as fine as any, although the Schumann Pedal Piano Canon in A flat admittedly sounds better with a piano, or two.
Saving the newest for last, however, the Te Deum by the Lebanese-French composer, organist and improviser Naji Hakim (born 1955) begins with a snarling fanfare, followed by a march-like episode peppered with booming clusters (mind your loudspeakers and sensitive neighbours here!), a lyrical section where soft dissonant commentaries flicker on occasion and some busy yet consistently inventive variations on the opening fanfare. You’ll buy this release for the marvellous instrument and for Miller’s superlative artistry but you’ll come away with the discovery of a formidable contemporary composer.