Erica Johnson, former organ scholar at Harvard’s Memorial Church, returned there to play the final organ recital in its fall Tuesday evening series. These have showcased both of the church’s new instruments: the rebuilt 1930 Skinner in Appleton Chapel and the 2012 C. B. Fisk in the rear gallery. Johnson’s program, played entirely on the Fisk, was an imaginative mix of standard, quasi-standard, and esoteric repertoire which illustrated her mastery of a range of styles.
We began with Dietrich Buxtehude’s Praeludium in G Minor, BuxWV 148. The toccata-like figuration of its opening section was a fine example of the North German Baroque stylus fantasticus, and Johnson played it with an improvisatory freedom that never became self-indulgence. A salient feature was the final section’s pedal basso ostinato in whose registration Johnson daringly included the 32’ Contra Posaune. On most organs this would be too much, particularly in a contrapuntal texture, but on the new Fisk it worked remarkably well.
Two of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Leipzig Chorales” followed: An Wasserflüssen Babylon, BWV 653b, and the trio on Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr’. The latter was especially impressive for its deftness (when well played, the work’s transparent texture conceals its considerable technical demands), its buoyant, springy rhythm, and its unfailing sense of line. The handsome registration achieved a subtle differentiation among the three voices.
A work by Bach’s most talented student, Johann Ludwig Krebs (1713-1780), made a logical successor. Krebs’s Prelude and Fugue in C Major pays tribute to his teacher with several passages that bear an unmistakable resemblance to Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C Major (BWV 564). However, the younger composer also stakes out his own musical territory via interesting brushes of chromatic color and, especially, a long and striking modulatory passage in the fugue. Johnson’s performance had verve and conviction, and I was grateful for the introduction to a fine work rooted in the Baroque but looking forward occasionally to Classical style.
The next piece was the “odd man out” on the program―the only non-German and also the only 20th-century work―the Theme and Variations on Psalm 149, “Sing to the Lord a New Song” by Alexandre Cellier (1883-1968) for trumpet and organ. The excellent trumpeter was Daniel Davis. The theme was composed by the French Renaissance composer Claude Goudimel in 1565 and was first presented in its original harmonization. The first variation constructed a canon between the trumpet (the soprano line) and the organ bass; it was striking how closely the organ’s trumpet stop resembled the actual trumpet when the two were juxtaposed. In the second variation, the theme was altered from minor to major in a musette form, i.e., there was an open fifth drone throughout. The melody was given to a cornet combination on the organ while the trumpet simply supplied lively anapestic interjections. Having relegated the trumpet to a supporting role in the musette, Cellier gave it a display piece in the Final alla bravura, consisting largely of detached organ chords under brilliant brass passagework. Davis and Johnson made a superb team, each moving from foreground to background as needed and displaying a nuanced range of dynamics and color.
Concluding the program was the Sonata No. 5 in F# Major, Op. 111, of Josef Rheinberger (1862-1901). While this composer’s twenty organ sonatas never fall below a reliable level of musical craftsmanship, it must be admitted that some have that certain je ne sais quoi that makes a listener want to re-encounter them repeatedly while others do not. The fifth sonata, in my opinion, is one of the very best, imparting fresh vitality to the sonata genre by giving it a new symphonic scope and expression. The opening, for instance, starkly contrasts a grandiose fortissimo minor theme with a celestial piano melody in the major that could have been written by Pater Seraphicus himself, César Franck. Throughout the movement Johnson used changes of stops and continual manipulation of the swellboxes to convey vividly the struggle between minor and major as well as the opposition of naked power and the “still, small voice of calm.” The second movement Adagio is in ABA form, with the As sharing a warmly embracing melody on the Clarinet stop of the Positive division, accompanied by the string celeste of the Swell. These are lovely sounds, but unfortunately they only balanced when the Positive swellbox was infrequently closed: a brief accompaniment echo of the melody was missed because the Clarinet “projected” over it. Otherwise, Johnson’s registrations were well chosen, and the Allegro of the B section worked up to a fine stormy climax before dying down again. The “gear-shifting” back to L’istesso tempo (A section reprise) was perhaps not ideally smooth, but once the opening Adagio was regained, one had a sense of the blessed calm after the storm. The final movement has much delicious music but also such a plethora of themes and motives that it can easily seem episodic and sprawling. Johnson held it together quite successfully while negotiating the finger-twisting complexities of F# major (and almost constant modulations) with calm assurance.
In concluding Memorial Church’s fall recital series, Johnson’s program admirably combined the familiar with the (undeservedly) esoteric to illustrate a range of styles accommodated by the Charles B. Fisk & Peter J. Gomes Memorial Organ. I look forward to the new series beginning in late January and continuing to celebrate the two outstanding new organs at Harvard.