Billing it as a CD release concert, Heinrich Christensen took to the C. B. Fisk organ at King’s Chapel, Boston to carry through with his presentation of all eighteen of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Leipzig Chorales. In the first part of his two-part series, on Sunday afternoon, February 20, Christensen illustrated Bach’s collection of liturgical pieces with zest. During the hour-long concert, his playing along with Joei Perry’s a cappella singing of the chorale melodies made it a well-paced time of spiritual reflection and musical encounter.
A native of Denmark, the young organist, who is successor to long-time Music Director Daniel Pinkham at King’s Chapel, was most expressive with the earthly, emotive side of the first setting of Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr’ BWV 662. In it both Christensen and the Fisk organ located unusual depth and directness: “To God on high alone be glory… No harm can touch us… peace unending now reigns.” Choosing a reed that blended boldness and brightness for the ornamented chorale melody, Christensen breathed beauty and naturalness into it.
A third setting, Trio super Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr’ BWV 664, took to bounciness offering needed contrast to this puzzling “box” of Bach pieces — “Perhaps the most likely explanation is that Bach did not have a specific plan in mind for this collection.” Here, Christensen delivered to order the Trio super’s patterns and sequences in a German Baroque motorized rhythm that bubbled and bubbled away. This made for easy-to-follow Bach listening, another avenue of contrast — the unplanned series of chorale preludes, remember, were not created with concertizing in mind.
The lengthy Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott BWV 652 (“Come Holy Spirit, Lord and God!”) was tough to take. What does an organist do with these extended Baroque lines in a moderate tempo? Are changes in registration a suitable means for the necessary profiling? Christensen’s choice of even-tempered stops did not help in holding the listener’s full attention. A calm An Wasserflüssen Babylon BWV 664 (“By the Rivers of Babylon”) caught and held the ear with the tantalizing chiffs from the Fisk organ’s flutes. However, the reed already heard in two settings of Allein Gott returning yet again made me conscious once again of that “box.”
Neither did I understand every one of the organist’s rhythmic articulations. Accelerations and decelerations at times appeared to me as interfering with the train of thought and motion, calling my attention to the performer and away from the music. The cadenza-like outpourings in the Allein Gott settings, though, made their way fluidly to their intended target — the heart.
But with no plan from Bach for his Leipzig Chorales as a whole (or in this case, half of the whole, as there were nine of chorales presented in today’s part-one concert), it seems no easy undertaking. What Christensen did was to encourage a sense of purity at once comfortable and elevating. So that in the end that “box” allowed the listener greater focus, inducing meditation as well as a greater appreciation for what Bach could do. A short and joyful Komm, Gott Schoöpfer, Heiliger Geist BWV 667 (“Come, God Creator, Holy Ghost”—Martin Luther) wrapped up the first part of this instructive series; the second is scheduled for November 27 of this year.