IN: Reviews

BEMF Mini-Organ Festival Delivers Gold


William Porter (Andre Costantiniw photo)

More like a marathon than a mini-festival, it was a five-and-a-half-hour “run” that carried us from “Amsterdam to Leipzig: traveling through a Golden Age.”  On the morning of June 18, James David Christie and Luca Guglielmi, exuberantly performed mostly seventeenth-century literature on the Houghton Chapel Fisk (1981) organ at Wellesley College, followed by an afternoon trek to the First Lutheran Church in the Back Bay to hear William Porter sensitively interpret J. S. Bach’s “Great Eighteen” on the Richards, Fowkes & Co. (2000) organ.

Perhaps a few words on the organs and their significance will give the reader some context. From their appearance in the Church of the late Middle Ages, organs were controlled by purely mechanical means. The introduction of electric actions ca. 1900 allowed organs to be played remotely from consoles that house the keyboards and pedalboard. Electrification of organ actions coincided with a Wagnerian tonal aesthetic that valued thick symphonic colors and an expanded dynamic range. Organ repertoire came to be dominated by orchestral and operatic transcriptions. The post-World War II era brought an increasing awareness of early repertories and an interest in studying surviving Baroque instruments. Organists rediscovered that mechanical key actions gave the player subtle control over the attack, and especially, the release of notes.

There are few instruments in this country that would so perfectly accommodate Christie’s “Sweelinck and His Students” portion and Guglielmo’s “Iter Bachianum:  from Sweelinck to Bach through Frescobaldi, Buxtehude, and other famous pupils” program. In fact, early organ guru Harald Vogel dubbed the Wellesley Fisk the “best seventeenth-century North German-style organ in America.” The tuning is in 1/4 comma mean-tone tuning, with split sharp keys, giving it fifteen notes per octave in both manuals and pedal, but making it a bear to play. It is a quirky and interesting literature and much depends upon the timing between sections and the elongation or shortening of beats in order to create accents and tension. Both organists lived up to their international reputations as brilliant and exciting performers, distinguishing themselves with differing stylistic approaches.

Christie opened with the “Fantasia” of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck in which he featured the instrument’s piquant reeds and rich principals along with his clear and expressive articulation. The tuning made particular sense of the descending chromatic features of the last section, as did Christie’s driving style. He pleasantly surprised the audience by chanting the odd-numbered verses of Samuel Scheidt’s “Magnificat IX toni,” bringing to life a centuries-old liturgical practice of the chant sung in alternation with the organ versets.  In Melchior Schildt’s “Paduanna Lagrima,” one realizes how much of this literature depends on ground-bass and dance forms  as much as purely contrapuntal sections.  A rich organo pleno was reserved for the last work, “Ricercare del nono tono.” In addition to keeping to Christie’s predilection for the ninth tone, it was a virtuosic tour de force, with rapid scalar passages and full voicing of chords.

Luca Guglielmo brought us into more familiar territory with Bach’s “Praeludium et Fuga” in C BWV 870b “per il Padre Martini, ” a rarely-programmed work. The mean-tone tuning silhouetted the dissonances sharply against the purely tuned thirds and fifths, especially at the arrival of the tonic. His acutely pointed articulations were especially welcome, making the counterpoint lucid. The Böhm four-movement “Praeludium” trumpeted its arrival on a repeated pedal point. The seventeenth-century stylus phantasticus was as much in evidence as were fugues in the French classic style with their characteristic dance rhythms.

Handel apparently borrowed Joahann Capar Kerll’s “Canzona IV” in the chorus, “Egypt was Glad” from Israel in Egypt. Scheidt’s “Bergamasca”; its divisions and rapidly repeating notes in the Renaissance style provided a charming contrast to the previous contrapuntal works. The juxtaposition of flutes, reeds, and principal stops were a delight to the ear as was the ending with the zimbelstern, a pneumatically controlled stop that rotates bells and a visible star that crowns the organ façade.

Guglielmi exploited the terraced registral colors and dynamics between the divisions in Sweelinck’s “Echofantasia,” while Froberger’s Elevation toccata captured the spell-binding moment of the Mass with lavish suspensions alternating with Lombardic rhythms. The debt to the French is also evident in Buxtehude’s ornamented chorale, “Nun bitten wir,” and was played with sassy stylishness.

College carilloneur, Margaret Angelini, both rang from the tower and provided the organ with wind by treading the bellows, which from my vantage point added distinctly authentic element.

William Porter continued the festival at the First Lutheran Church, which houses perhaps the most well-matched Boston organ on which to perform an all-Bach program. Just as Wellesley’s Fisk is ideally suited to seventeenth-century literature, this instrument was explicitly patterned after extant instruments whose tonal aesthetic Bach would have espoused, although its heftier tonal qualities made it sound Brahmsian by comparison. Porter’s program entitled “The Great [Eighteen] ‘Liepzig’ Chorales of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750),” could have easily been appended with, “or the Great [Seventeen] ‘Weimar’ Chorales,” as research in the post-Schweitzer period has shown that the earliest versions of these works were the products of Bach’s youth in Weimar with one chorale spuriously attributed to Bach. These relatively lengthy chorale settings have more in common with the arias of cantatas and passions and are thus rather vocal and rhetorical in nature. Nine of them are actually trio sonatas with the chorale serving as a fourth voice cantus firmus.

The composer’s intention was to provide models of composition in the treatment of chorale melodies and not that they be heard in one sitting, but such encyclopedic performances are now staples. It is a difficult and taxing prospect to perform these works as a cycle, and in spite of Porter’s consummate skill and superb musicianship, the first half was speckled by imprecise spots and false starts.  But little could stand in the way of the kind of the rare understanding that Porter’s devotion to these works portrayed. The passion and forward motion of  “Von Gott will ich nicht lassen” and the cantabile expressivity in the ornamented chorale on “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” were particularly moving. The trio based on the same chorale, BWV 660, struck me as being modeled on a duet of violas da gamba supporting the chorale melody, as if he were “bowing” the 8’ Principal. Porter’s registrations were varied and interesting, making full use of the instrument’s coloristic possibilities.  He brilliantly ordered the works in such a way as to provide a logical musical and liturgical arch, framing the program with the organo pleno settings, “Fantasia super Komm, Heilger Geist” and “Jesus Christus, unser Heland.”

At the end of this monumental marathon, one stands in wonder of the repertoire, sonorities, and playing that would have been heard centuries ago, thanks to instrument builders, scholars, and mostly, to performers whose lives are dedicated to giving breath to this Golden Age of the organ.

Richard Bunbury, Ph.D., has been teaching musicology and music education, first at the Boston Conservatory, and since 2007 at Boston University, while serving a large church as an organist and music director.

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