Internationally renowned organist Joan Lippincott performed on the elegant 1995 C. B. Fisk organ at All Saints, Ashmont, in a program that would make the average organist blanch. The program on Sunday, November 13, ranged from Johann Sebastian Bach to Ned Rorem; nearly all are pieces famous for both their superlative quality and their great technical demands. The difficulties, however, were all but forgotten in Lippincott’s musically compelling performance.
The Fanfare and Fugue of Ned Rorem (b. 1923) made an effective opener, the fanfare grabbing one’s attention with its angular introduction and astringent harmonic language as well as a contrasting calmer section featuring “sweet and sour” harmonies. The fugue subject was recognizable in multi-voice textures only by its rhythmic profile, the fugue being largely composed of harmonic non sequiturs. Fortunately, Lippincott’s rhythm and articulation kept the proceedings clear throughout.
J. S. Bach’s Passacaglia in c minor was notable for eschewing the kaleidoscopic changes of registration often heard in this great set of variations over a pedal ostinato. Though there were a handful of changes in stop combinations, Lippincott created variation more often with articulation, beginning detached (the generous acoustics of the church ensuring that the texture was never dry) and progressing through degrees of legato. The final “variation” is a tremendous fugue of three subjects: the passacaglia’s ostinato, the fugue subject, and countersubject. Lippincott clearly delineated the three subjects at all times and built to a thunderous conclusion. For a marked contrast in mood, Bach’s great setting of Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (Bedeck Thyself, My Soul, With Gladness) was heard next, one of the master’s most beautiful and comforting works. I found the artist’s tempo slightly brisk and the plentiful ornamentation initially more businesslike than expressive though this improved as the piece progressed.
Another demanding masterpiece followed in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Fantasia in f minor (K. 608). One of two f-minor fantasies Mozart wrote for a mechanical organ run by clockwork, K. 608 is the stormier, more dramatic of the two. The fortissimo opening was bracing, thanks to Lippincott’s bristling ornaments and electric dotted rhythms. Despite a registration that was a trifle heavy, the succeeding fugue’s polyphony remained reasonably clear. The central slow movement, in a luminous A-flat Major, featured a delicious interplay between a secondary 8-foot principal and a liquid 8-foot flute as well as warm, tender playing. After the return of the opening material which brought us from A-flat back to f-minor, the fugue made its second appearance in elaborated form. Anyone who hasn’t played or seen this score would have had no idea of the convolutions this work puts a human player through: Lippincott’s rendering made it sound utterly natural.
Jehan Alain, it is universally agreed, is one of the great organ composers of the twentieth century, despite his tragically premature death at twenty-nine, an early casualty of World War II. Perhaps his greatest masterpiece is the Trois Danses which the composer conceived for orchestra but had barely begun to orchestrate when he was killed. It remains, however, a highly effective organ work whose emotional impact is equaled by very few others. The first dance, “Joies” (Joys), begins with several phrases of contrasted and quite unusual reed stop combinations; Lippincott’s registrations were creative (on a medium-sized instrument such as this, one can only approximate the composer’s specifications) and effective. The movement’s second theme, stated first in the pedal, had the requisite jazzy “swing.” “Joies” became gradually more exciting through the addition of more voices and stops as well as polyrhythmic complexity, climaxing with a fortissimo chordal trill. Lippincott swept us along to the emotional crest. There followed a coda with a mournful little tune as transition to the next dance. “Deuils” (Griefs), presciently subtitled “Funeral dance to honor the memory of a hero,” is another passacaglia, though interrupted at times by themes other than the main ostinato. Through well-chosen registrations and skillful use of the swell-box, Lippincott achieved a more gradual and nuanced build-up than many organists achieve. A repetitive chordal sequence based on the first part of the ostinato, however, was taken slightly too fast, and consequently the fast-repeated chords were not usually perceptible as such. The tempo continued to quicken as we were carried headlong to a searing climax. The emotional traction of this approach was powerful indeed, but it came at the price of detail. There followed a moving section with dialogue between string celeste and a weeping flute stop, and a final section of forlorn monody. The last dance, Luttes(Struggles), unites themes from the previous two. At the beginning, the artist made fine use of dramatic pauses between phrases. Soon the tempo picked up a bit, and the repeated-chord figure from Deuils reappeared, this time emerging clearly. The climactic final page was taken faster than the norm–the last chord clipped so short it didn’t quite register–but if the objective again was maximum emotional impact, it was achieved. Altogether, it was a stunning performance of Trois Danses.
The program closed with a bravura reading of Franz Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H Liszt was just one of many composers to pay tribute to Bach by using the letters of his name: in German nomenclature B is b-flat and H is B natural, thus b-flat-A-C-B natural (the program notes incorrectly stated “B,A,C,Bb”).The idea was originated by Bach himself, who worked his name into Contrapunctus XIX of The Art of the Fugue. Lippincott enjoyed the grand romantic gesture, using liberal rubato and making the prelude (and much of the fugue) feel like a free improvisation. The B-A-C-H. motive is heard almost continuously and in a staggering array of different harmonizations, some quite hair-raising for a 19th-century composer. Only once did an overly fast tempo cause a loss of clarity: one climax of the fugue has a long pedal point when the right hand trills for many measures and the left plays a portion of the fugue subject in a descending chromatic sequence. The left hand has the important part, but here it was blurred by speed and being too nearly legato. Otherwise it was a flawless, virtuosic, and thrilling performance, Lippincott saving absolutely full organ for the final pair of phrases, a sensational ending.
There was a single encore that I would guess to be a piece by Franz Josef Haydn written for the same type of clockwork organ for which Mozart wrote his fantasy. It showcased the beauty of Fisk’s flute stops and was irresistibly charming. Her biography states that Lippincott, formerly of New Jersey, now lives on Cape Cod. I’m sure many will join me in hoping that she will be a frequent recitalist in greater Boston in the future. Her virtuosity is in no doubt, and her command of a variety of different idioms is both instructive and musically satisfying.
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 currently sings in the choir of Trinity Church.