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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

Nightwatch

by Michael Barone
December 11, 2000

Listen to Paul Halley with his Connecticut-based Chorus, Angelicus and Gaudeamus, in recital at Spivey Hall near Atlanta, improvising on seasonal songs, and in his landmark recording of late-night music from the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City in Pipedreams broadcast document #2050.

Paul Halley performs at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York, NY (1954 Aeolian-Skinner, 4 manuals/141 ranks). Pelagos CD-1002 [AAD]; total music time 38:38. Recorded for LP release in 1982, reissued here in CD format. Produced by Chris Brown (Pelagos Incorporated, P.O. Box 264, Norfolk, CT 06058). [Five improvisations: Sunset/Dusk, Moondance, Nocturne, Nightwatch, Dawn/Sunrise]

For some of us, the most memorable moments in several classic Paul Winter Consort albums are those at which the rich and grounded voice of the Great Organ of Saint John the Divine, in the hands of Paul Halley, begins to simmer at the periphery and then swell to a truly heart-warming, scene-stealing grandeur impossible for any other instrument to achieve.

This album is a welcome CD reissue of recording sessions grown out of Friday-night improvisational “happenings” played by Paul for groups of teenage overnight visitors to the Cathedral. What a wonderful way for a church youth group t o be introduced to such an historic and spiritual place, and to the pipe organ!

Halley mostly eschews sectarian ritual, and instead creates a kind of super-natural realm for the interplay of acoustic and emotional energy. His dozen years as Cathedral music director (1977-1989) gave him ample time and reason to know this mamoth and mighty Aeolian-Skinner instrument intimately, and he uses it brilliantly and subtly in creating panels of universal appeal.

While the opening movement unfolds around the hymn Picardy: Let all mortal flesh keep silent, silence is the last thing on Paul’s mind as he next launches us into the vibrantly joyous celebration of Moondance. Energy ebbs and flows. Cornet, Flauto Mirabilis, French horn and Gamba solos are superseded by thrilling diapason ensembles and Bombarde reed choruses, the swirling mass capped at several points by interjections from the distant, incisive west-end State Trumpet.

At the time of its first release on LP, Nightwatch was the best-sounding modern recording of this landmark instrument in the world’s largest Gothic cathedral. More recent albums. . . on the Pro Organo label by Paul’s protege, Dorothy Papadakos, and on Koch International by New York City denizen Marsha Heather Long. Nightwatch was and remains a classic to the last reverberation.