Defying inclement weather, an audience at Old West Church, Boston, was richly rewarded with an excellent recital by Italian organist Francesco Cera on Friday, September 28. Playing the renowned C. B. Fisk organ, Cera offered a first half of early Italian keyboard and organ music, a repertoire still comparatively unfamiliar here; his second half was entirely of works by Johann Sebastian Bach. Academicians could argue whether the Italian pieces were intended for the harpsichord or the organ, but this colorful and idiomatic performance rendered such debate superfluous. As composers of this period did not specify stop choices, the performer has both opportunity and responsibility. Cera’s registrations were both imaginative and exemplary.
Our attention was seized immediately by Cera’s dramatic account of Toccata terza by Michelangelo Rossi (1601-1656). The third of ten toccatas, it is akin to a “stream-of-consciousness” improvisation with sharply contrasted sections, replete with hair-raising dissonances and wonderfully outlandish chord progressions. The organist’s range of touch was well displayed, from sustained nobility to nimble dance to scintillating display.
Several pieces of Rossi’s teacher, Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), provided a small sampling of the many forms in which this great master of counterpoint gave expression to his genius. The Bergamasca was akin to a miniature dance suite featuring, among others, a delicately feminine section on a 4′-stop, a chordal bit on a trumpet stop for masculine contrast, and a vigorous jig on the Cremona reed stop. The Toccata quarta da sonarsi alla levatione was notable for its occasional dissonances which could seem almost modern. Also, we heard here a reasonable facsimile of the unique sound of the classical Italian voce umana, a gently undulating foundation stop bearing no relation to the reed stop vox humana found in non-Italian organs. Finally, the Capriccio sopra ut re mi fa sol la, as the name implies, is based on the first six notes of the major scale and is comprised of some 11 sections. As before, Cera provided a lesson in thoughtful choice of stops. The musical contrasts were equally pronounced, here spinning out an exquisite line on a single stop, there a quicksilver display on the plenum.
The Passacaglia in G Minor of Bernardo Pasquini (1637-1710) brought us forward a half-century. The term passacaglia is derived from the Spanish pasar (to walk) and calle (street). By Bach’s time the term most often denoted a repeating basso ostinato in triple meter with variations over it, but Pasquini’s work, chordal from the start, is slightly closer to Johann Pachelbel’s Canon than to Bach’s famous Passacaglia. Here Cera, content to subtly vary the articulation from one variation to the next, made fewer changes of registration.
Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725), a close associate of Pasquini and Arcangelo Corelli, was primarily famous as an opera composer, and, unlike his son Domenico, wrote relatively little keyboard music. Nonetheless, Alessandro’s Toccata del primo tono is sufficiently substantial that we heard only three excerpts from it: Allegro, Cantabile, and Fuga. The first section fit the stereotype of the late Baroque toccata, i.e., a display piece with rapid passagework and arpeggiated chords. Cera’s fingerwork remained wonderfully clear within his very fast tempo. The fittingly named Cantabile, played on a single 8′ Principal, had the character of a florid bel canto line sung by a gifted vocal artist. The ornamentation became ever greater, and soon enough there was a brief recapitulation of the Allegro material serving as a bridge to the concluding Fuga. The fugue subject somewhat resembled that of Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565; here too the polyphony was not especially sophisticated, the subject always primus inter pares among the voices. In fact, the fugue soon devolved into a repeating left-hand pattern, and the right hand itself was repetitive enough for a time to make one think of Philip Glass; then almost without warning the right hand erupted in fireworks, particularly a blitz of down-rushing scales, nearing the end of the work. Cera’s fine, theatrical performance made me want to hear him play Scarlatti’s entire Toccata.
The latter half of the program began with seven chorale preludes from Bach’s Orgelbüchlein. Cera played with clear articulation, expressivity, and sometimes unconventional but effective registrations. Lob sei dem allmächtigen Gott (Praise be to the almighty God), a case in point, bristled with exuberance that was pointed up by a registration purely of trumpet stops. Puer natus in Bethlehem (A Boy was born in Bethlehem), too, utilized a pure reed color in the manuals — in this case the Cremona — with foundations only in the pedal. The celebratory In dir ist Freude was impressive both for its virtuosity — the trills executed by the feet just as crisp and clean as those by the hands — and its clarity. For me, the only peculiar aesthetic choice of the evening came in Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (I call to You, Lord Jesus Christ), a trio setting which derives its pathos from its simplicity. Cera made the flowing notes of the accompanying middle voice overlap and cohere briefly into chords, creating little crescendi-diminuendi, which seemed at odds with Bach’s deliberately simple texture. One might also say the same thing about the added ornamentation; yet it was so elegantly done, it was hard to quibble.
The program ended with a thrilling account of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 538 (Dorian). Cera’s carefully devised registration allowed Bach’s specified echo effects to come through with admirable clarity. The artist’s steady rhythm and impeccable coordination of hands and feet made for a display piece less obvious than that “other” D Minor but no less impressive. After the brilliance of the toccata, the stately fugue, far richer harmonically and contrapuntally than its counterpart in BWV 565, had a gravitas that built gradually and powerfully to the magnificent conclusion.
Though his Bach playing bears comparison to the best, Cera’s special gift is guiding audiences through the glories of the early Italian repertoire. Long may he continue to do so in Boston — and North America!