Generations of music students have made fun of composer Dudley Buck's name, transposing it into "Budley Duck," and as he was an American stalwart of German-influenced, 19th century tradition that makes him a rather easy target. That's not entirely fair; like Amy Beach, Buck was just as aware of Italian traditions as he was of German, and he was one of Charles Ives' organ teachers. Doubtless Ives was familiar with Buck's The Star-Spangled Banner Concert Variations, which remains Buck's best-known contribution to the repertoire; his Festival Te Deum in E flat was once a staple anthem heard in churches throughout the land. Raven's Dudley Buck: Organ Music, featuring James Hammann, music department chair at the University of New Orleans and former student of the University of Michigan's legendary organist Marilyn Mason, seeks to counter the view of Dudley Buck as an arch-conservative whose music is unpalatable to post-19th century tastes. The program includes Buck's Grand Sonata in E flat, Op. 22 (1866) -- the first major organ sonata to be written by an American -- the expected Star-Spangled Banner Variations, Buck's Organ Sonata No. 2 (1877) plus a selection of etudes and a Rondo-Caprice, Op. 35. For his instrument, Hammann employs an 1866 E. & G.G. Hook organ moved out of cold storage in 2006 into the St. John's Episcopal Church in Quincy, IL.
Raven's recording is not as direct and present as perhaps would be desirable -- certain quiet registrations are rather hard to hear -- but it does the job, and Hammann's interpretations are as they should be: reverent, tasteful, played with evenness, and artfully conceived. Much of Buck's work is excellent if you have an appreciation for romantic organ music and indeed, might be more accessible to American listeners than such European romantics as Guilmant and Rheinberger. The Grand Sonata has a sunny, out-of-doors quality and a mocking scherzo that has a mildly demonic quality, like Gounod's Funeral March for a Marionette; Buck's Second Organ Sonata is by comparison more reserved in style and not as immediate. The Rondo Caprice utilizes chromatic harmony in an interesting way to add shade and color rather than resorting to the slithery, swooning chromatics so common in 19th century music. The Studies in Pedal Phrasing are modest, repetitive pieces that have a certain charm, but are clearly intended for pedagogical purposes and one might wonder why Hammann recorded these. Ultimately, Raven's Dudley Buck: Organ Music might not win very many converts from the cold to Dudley Buck, but for preaching to the choir, it's fine. Just try to call him Dudley, not "Budley," OK?