Boston’s Old West Church and the Old West Organ Society hosted the renowned Canadian organist and harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour in an organ recital on Friday, September 23, that was relatively narrow in chronological span but nonetheless displayed a variety of styles. From the Baroque styles of North Germany and of South Germany to the supreme master Johann Sebastian Bach, who united aspects of both, Beauséjour was equally at home.
The Bach Prelude and Fugue in C Major, BWV 545, made a noble and bracing opening with its cascading pedal figure. It was perhaps an unconventional choice to begin the fugue at full plenum, but the celebrated C. B. Fisk organ’s exceptionally clear reed voicing and Beauséjour’s articulation maintained clarity throughout. The chorale prelude Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier (Dearest Jesu, We Are Here), BWV 731 was elegant and expressive with handsome ornamentation.
Johann Pachelbel, an exponent of the South German organ school a generation older than J. S. Bach, was represented by two greatly contrasted settings of the chorale Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her (From High Heaven, I Come Here). The first was witty with the chorale tune played on an 8’ trumpet stop in its lower range and a dancing accompaniment above. The second setting placed the chorale in the pedal with a majestic plenum over it. Beauséjour showed us that Pachelbel had more range and variety than one might suspect from the ubiquitous Canon alone.
Continuing still further back in time were the variations on Mein junges Leben hat ein End (My Young Life Has an End) by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck who, though Dutch, is generally considered the founder of the North German organ school. Beauséjour took the opportunity to display many of the beautiful colors of the Fisk organ. He began with foundations, followed with a flute stop, and eventually played a variation on the Cremona alone (also known as Krummhorn or Cromorne). He finished on a soothing foundation (possibly the 8’ Violin Diapason) that seemed most fitting in view of the piece’s title. Beauséjour’s fingerwork was faultlessly crisp and clean.
Following were two more Bach pieces, the setting of Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Sleepers, Awake, a Voice Is Calling), BWV 645, and the famous (or infamous, if you prefer) Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565. The chorale prelude is the well-known setting from the Schübler collection, a transcription by the composer of one of his cantata movements. Beauséjour’s performance contrasted the legato chorale tune with strongly grouped accompaniment notes in a brisk tempo for an effective “reveille.” The Toccata was also strongly characterized by dramatic groupings of notes. Also, Beauséjour’s arpeggiated diminished seventh chord in triplets demonstrated that this passage is still more dizzying when executed exactly in tempo without any rubato. The fugue was vigorous and largely forte tofortissimo though the organist did take advantage of the repetitions in the major section to provide echoes. In the slower chords between cadenzas, Beauséjour “kept the pot boiling” (and often intensified dissonances) by inserting trills in inner voices, an ingenious way of creating motion within (relative) stasis.
The second half began with the Biblical Sonata No. 1 — The Combat Between David and Goliath — by Johann Kuhnau, Bach’s predecessor as Cantor at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche. This accomplished piece of program music was enhanced by the use of a narrator, Old West Organ Society’s Executive Director Margaret Angelini. The opening “boasting of Goliath” was depicted by swaggering dotted rhythms played on ponderous trumpet stops; this was followed by the “trembling of the Israelites” and their prayer to God: in fact, a setting of the chorale Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (From Deep Need I Cry to You). There were numerous examples of musical description, e.g., alternation of foundation chorus with reed chorus to depict combat, and canonic writing (i.e., one voice chasing another) showing the Israelites pursuing the Philistines. It was all quite vivid in Beauséjour’s hands.
Georg Böhm’s chorale prelude on Vater unser im Himmelreich (Our Father who art in Heaven) is a setting both florid and meditative in the North German style. The combination of a beautiful registration and Beauséjour’s expressive phrasing and ornamentation gave us a moving performance.
As a demonstration of Bach’s cosmopolitanism, incorporating influences of the German organ schools North and South, the master’s Passacaglia in C minor was an ideal choice. One can detect aspects of the North German ostinato style (Buxtehude’s own Passacaglia in D Minor, a notable example) as well as the South German chaconne (such as those of Pachelbel). Beauséjour again broke with convention and began the piece at a robust forte, with principal chorus and mixtures, only quieting down when the pedal part dropped out for several variations. The last and most attenuated of these was especially lovely. With the pedals’ reentry, the forte returned, reinforced with trumpet stop. Except for one minor loss of place near its beginning, Beauséjour proceeded inexorably forward with the concluding double fugue. As Bach maintains the countersubject throughout, there are actually three fugue subjects almost always heard simultaneously, which Beauséjour’s painstaking articulation kept ever clear and distinct through all the various permutations of voices. The coda was appropriately earthshaking.
This performance was a textbook example of an artfully planned program, designed to appeal to the “casual” concertgoer as well as the connoisseur or fellow organist; it was played with refinement and robustness. I look forward to being part of a larger audience at Beauséjour’s next Boston organ recital.
Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach, and choir member at Trinity Church, Copley Square and in the Back Bay Chorale.