in: Reviews

June 15, 2009

Fine Organ Playing, Lecture, at BEMF’s Organ Festival

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The fourth biennial Organ Mini-Festival of the 2009 Boston Early Music Festival occurred last Friday, June 12, 2009, under the direction of William Porter. This year it was entitled “Consummate Counterpoint and Graceful Galanteries, The Organ at the hands (and feet) of the Bachs.”

Organist Joan Lippincott began the day with a fine performance of the supremely consummate counterpoint work, Bach’s Art of the Fugue, his last work. Ms. Lippincott for years led the organ department at Westminster Choir College in New Jersey and was principal organist at Princeton University. She is not afraid of applying the full resources of the excellent Richards, Fowkes organ at the First Lutheran Church in Boston, where the entire one-day festival was held. Gustav Leonhardt used to say that the Art of  the Fugue was really a harpsichord piece, but Bach originally printed it in open score, lending it to performance on any number of instruments that fit its range.

Ms. Lippincott performed the original version of the set, ending with the incomplete quadruple fugue, rather than the earlier version, which has its own logic. Both versions progress from simple to complex fugues. Lippincott exploited various color combinations for the individual fugues. Particularly effective was her handling of the three-voice Contrapunctus 8 as compared to the four-voice Contrapunctus 11, which shares the same material. The added voice of the latter clearly made a sonic impact. The four canons certainly benefited by playing each voice on separate keyboards.

At the end of the excruciating final fugue, with its final single notes trailing off, Lippincott held up her score and saluted the organ.

The second part of the day was devoted to a fascinating lecture by Dr. Christopher Boyd Brown, Assistant Professor of Church History at Boston University, on “Rhetorical Forms in Lutheran Worship.” His remarks were illustrated by organ performances from the 17th century by Bálint Karosi, who was born in Budapest, Hungary and now serves as Music Director at the First Lutheran Church in Boston.

Professor Brown emphasized the theological interest in the Word, tracing its influence on Ciceronian oratory, whose purpose was to teach, to delight and to move. Martin Luther himself supported humanistic teaching with his support of music and rhetoric. Karosi then played Georg Böhm’s Partita on “Freu dich sehr, o meine seele,” whose variations nicely referred to the textual contrasts in each verse. Dietrich Buxtehude’s Prelude in C Major imitates oratorical form, with its contrasting short sections, likewise his Chorale Fantasy on “Wie schön leuchtet.”

Karosi then was given a chance to demonstrate his considerable improvisational skills on one of Bach’s chorale tunes. He learned how to improvise in the old style from the master himself, William Porter, then played Bach’s masterful Jesus Christus Unser Heiland on the same chorale tune. He ended his recital with perhaps the most theologically complete organ piece by Bach, the Prelude and Fugue in Eb Major. The key itself contains three flats; both the prelude and the three-part fugue are loaded with trinitarian references.

The third part of the day was a long organ recital by William Porter illustrating the musical differences between J. S. and C. P. E Bach. (“Father and Son Together.”) Porter gave an amusing introduction, some of which he later rued because he had to cut some pieces owing to time restraints. He included an interpretation of the organ’s stop list for the non-organist.

Ed: This is one of 11 full reviews by Boston Musical Intelligencer reviewers of concerts from the 2009 Boston Early Music Festival.

Larry Phillips studied music at Harvard, the Montreal Conservatory, and at New England Conservatory. In 1974 he was a prizewinner at the International Harpsichord Competition in Bruges, Belgium.

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