An impressive number of people sacrificed a couple hours of splendid autumn weather Sunday to hear James David Christie’s organ recital at Harvard’s Memorial Church, and they were amply rewarded. Christie has a stellar résumé which includes the positions of Professor of Organ at Oberlin Conservatory, College Organist at Wellesley College, Distinguished Artist in Residence at College of the Holy Cross, and Organist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The artist demonstrated his versatility, playing a variety of early music on the C. B. Fisk organ in the rear gallery in the first half, and then a rarely heard late Romantic organ symphony on the Skinner instrument in Appleton Chapel. As an avid repertoire hound, I was delighted to be introduced to two Baroque composers previously unknown to me (Piroye and Buttstett) as well as unfamiliar works (the two chaconnes) by composers I did know.
We first heard La Béatitude by a lesser-known French Baroque composer, Charles Piroye (ca. 1668/72-1717/30). This was a rondo with rollicking dance-rhythms. Christie found many tangy tone-colors and played with irresistible zest even as the recurrences of the main theme acquired increasing majesty towards the end. The Ciaccona in C of Bernardo Storace (fl. mid-17th century) was also dance-inspired and high-spirited, with plenty of Christie’s sparkling fingerwork and some comic hiccups just before its conclusion.
A marked mood shift came with Johann Pachelbel’s plangent Ciaconna in F minor. The performer displayed the unadorned beauty of the Fisk’s 8’ stopped flutes and principals. With its variations on a repeating chord sequence, the piece is structured much like the composer’s inescapable Canon but is a far more interesting work to my ears. Christie gave it an airy texture and exquisite pathos. In a similar mold is Dietrich Buxtehude’s Passacaglia in D minor, with variations over a repeating bass line. The artist registered the work with restraint, by section (mf –mp –mf), and his mixture of sustained and gently detached articulation avoided the dogmatic legato that can render this work deadly. This subtle performance compelled me to reconsider my longtime relegating of this work to the rank of second-class Buxtehude.
We again changed moods with Johann Sebastian Bach’s vigorous Fugue on the Magnificat (BWV 733), Christie achieving the neat trick of combining brio with grandeur (as he had in the Piroye). Entrances of the fugue subject were gracefully pointed up as the performer’s rhythmic energy swept us along. Registration here was anything but restrained: the final two pedal entrances thundered forth thrillingly with the 32’ bombarde. Another discovery (for me) followed with the Fugue in E Minor by Johann Heinrich Buttstett (1666-1727), which could as well be called a “scherzo” thanks to its playful charm. Its subject features rapid repetitions of each pitch (the first four of which quote Buxtehude’s Praeludium in F-sharp Minor). It is often thought that the organ can’t make clear fast reiterations as it lacks the defining percussion of the harpsichord’s plectra or the piano’s hammers. Christie, however, wasted no time exploding that notion. The innumerable clear note—and chord!—repetitions were an eloquent testament to the player’s marvelously controlled wrist and finger action as well as the highly responsive suspended tracker action of the Fisk organ. This was both a tour de force and thoroughly entertaining.
The first half ended with Bach’s Contrapunctus XI from “The Art of Fugue” (BWV 1080). Its first section, played on foundation stops, highlighted the rigor of the composer’s counterpoint. In the second, Christie’s use of a krummhorn-style reed gave added pungency to Bach’s sometimes daring harmonies. The third and final section, on the plenum, “tightened the screws” with heightened chromatic harmonies coming with greater frequency and the performer masterfully building excitement en route to a stunning finish.
To begin the second half of the program, Christie spoke to the audience about the French Romantic composer Augustin Barié (1883-1915) and his Symphonie, Op. 5, probably written between 1904 and 1908 though not published until 1911. One of a number of distinguished blind French organist-composers, Barié studied with Adolphe Marty, Alexandre Guilmant, and Louis Vierne, titulaire of Notre Dame de Paris. Vierne, himself nearly blind and a composer of six organ symphonies, was a particularly strong influence who described his student’s symphony as “so noble, so touched by affection, so picturesque.” Perhaps Barié’s exceptional gift for improvisation and certainly his tragically short lifespan resulted in a very small oeuvre of written compositions: his entire organ output is comprised of the Three Pieces, Op. 7, the Élégie, and the Symphony. To perform this symphony, Christie opted for the Skinner organ, a superb example of the symphonic style of organ-building, at the opposite end of Memorial Church, Appleton Chapel.
Barié’s five-movement symphony opened with a Prelude and Fugue. The prelude was affectingly melancholy, opening with a solo pedal exposition of the leitmotiv that gives cyclic unity to the entire symphony. The fugue subject is the exact same motive in a different rhythm, and this movement, with its fresh, sometimes modal harmonies and exciting stretti towards the end, is conspicuously successful given the generally undistinguished quality of French fugues of this period, as Christie had noted. The central Adagio is the most overtly beautiful movement, and the artist lost no opportunity to showcase the delicious softer sounds of the Skinner—the lush and ethereal string celestes, sweet voix humaine, glistening flutes, and rich and mellow French Horn—in playing full of warmth and fantasy. The Intermezzo provided a deft scherzo à la Mendelssohn, with dancing chords on flutes alternating with delicate traceries on the strings. Though there are whiffs of Vierne and Charles-Marie Widor here, the young composer’s distinct voice undeniably comes through. Christie’s wide range of articulation made this a delectable divertissement. The Finale opens in declamatory fashion and wanders through a rather dense harmonic forest, with almost continual modulations while the texture thins and re-thickens. Christie kept the textures admirably clear and generated considerable excitement towards the end in the passages closest to a stereotypical French toccata.
The audience’s hearty applause elicited an encore: the Elegy Christie composed in 2007 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jean Langlais, another renowned blind French organist-composer, with whom the recitalist had studied improvisation. A passacaglia based on the recurring pitch sequence of C-A-D-B flat-D-C-A, it often used the modal harmonies Langlais was famously fond of and interwove the sequence with the plainsong melodies of In Paradisum and the Te Deum. Highlights included a beautiful high flute solo and the introduction of yet one more lovely Skinner stop: the subtle celesta, evocative of distant bells. Impressionistic and reverent, the quiet Elegy was a moving tribute in the French manner.