A Bach organ recital on a fine instrument by an accomplished and aspiring musicologist/performer: how irresistible. The well-noted Matthew Hall, C.P.E. Bach expert, Peter Sykes student, Leeds organ Fulbright, musicology master’s from U-Leeds and doctoral student at Cornell in same, played last night on the Old West Church Fisk in the estimable but often woefully under-attended Old West Organ Society summer series. The short program comprised the great Fantasy and Fugue in C Minor S.537, dour, frightening, underpresented; four (Bach wrote even more) variously sourced chorale riffs on Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr (Alone to God on high be honor); and the famous E-flat Major Prelude and Fugue S.552. It was a perfectly acceptable recital performance, sometimes more, but like so many all-Bach organ events, it often wanted a certain vitality and rocking-out.
At the distance of 33 years, enough time for a pipe organ to go out of style (and for its once-gleaming tin front pipes to have dimmed to dull gray), the Old West Fisk still works as well and sounds as good as it ever did. And while the intervening years have seen the construction of many wonderful specimens that more closely follow historical models and are more closely geared to German repertory—the Richards, Fowkes at First Lutheran on Berkeley Street is a fine example—Old West remains a good instrument for Bach. That is remarkable for an organ whose animating spirit is avowedly French (the 1710 Andreas Silbermann in Marmoutier was its primary model). All the piquant, plangent, echt-French-Classical sounds are present, though dialed back just enough to let the organ be convincing in the echt-German soundworld of Bach.
In any situation, Bach organists have so many aesthetic variables to deal with, forced and free alike: loudness, registrations, tempos, legato or detached. Understanding teachers’ reasonings, and departing from what was taught, or not. How inspired to sound, or how constrained. Not unlike other musicians, maybe, but somehow in organ recitals it all seems more exposed, either more questionable or naturally right-feeling, either more understandable, given this instrument in this space, or strangely inexplicable.
My own understanding of the C-Minor Fantasia and Fugue is that, as with those minor fugues from about the same time (B, F, D, others), and the opening of the Wedge and some other works, we are meant to be wholly gripped by the ultimate fear of God, with the learned Lutheran musician grabbing our lapels as we attempt to go on our way, pointing out: we are going to die, we are sinners, we need to act, to change, to act on, make real use of, our fearfulness in this short life. Bach issues not so much a call to action as a reminder of our bleeding condition. That opening pedal point compels the attention, the ensuing swirls and clouds of near-despair keep it, with lots of downward steps, and then the closing rising cadence to G sets us up for more, different ordeals. In his fugue Bach keeps climbing that cliff, again and again, miraculously, moving laterally to yet another approach, and then more climbing. It could not be simpler, it could not be more powerful, and of course no other composer is like that.
Matthew Hall was having little of this. He played S.537 chiefly as chorale—a prelude to and perhaps enactment of quiet somber meditation. His was a solid and thoughtful version, even the fugue thoughtful, but to my soul it left the commanding gravity of the work unrealized. Surely Hall has his reasons. I had to go home and turn to James Kibbie (terrific interpretation) and, believe it or not, to Virgil Fox, whose Fantasia rendition is immensely slow but with positively whelming clouds of terror, and the Fugue, stabbing dumbly, continues Fox’s dated swells and registrations, yet by some measure makes for both the best recording of the piece I know and the best Bach Fox ever recorded (I cannot believe I am writing this).
Also uninvolving were Hall’s chorale selections on the Bach fave Allein Gott , which mildly showed off various aspects of the Fisk. Miscellaneously collected, S.717 is a short, dense but fluent lead-into congregational singing. S.663 is from the ‘Great’ 18 chorales, serious, cantus firmus (meaning the tune is in the long notes). S.711 is from the later collection of Bach student J.P. Kirnberger. The fughetta S.677 is short and happy but pretty complex contrapuntally; it’s from Bach’s famous Keyboard Workout (Clavieruebung), ‘workout’ here meaning not only for the fingers but for the soul. Hall played everything well, often very well, but it ought not to have been anywhere tepid; he could have lit it up with more excitement or, as someone in the audience muttered, “Shoulda included more of the powerful ones from the 18.”
The E-flat Major Prelude and Fugue S. 522 is marked flat-out (pleno), and Hall complied. There were a few finger slips, but it was strong, loud, powerful, rhythmically sturdy, and did I say loud? It sounded as though he was into it and atop it; rushings and emergency slowdowns were few. From Biggs on, and surely before (Biggs as always alternates stately and stodgy, but nails it after the 6/4 interlude of the fugue), through Marie-Claire Alain and up to Hans-Andre Stamm today, these artists covering perhaps a half-century of organ practice, the eighth-note chord that ends the first measure (et seq) is played not quite as written but in semi-dotted French overture style, just like, and presaging, all those sixteenths to follow. I did not check the master and my idol Anton Heiller, but I bet it was Frenchified enough (see later confirmation). Matthew Hall would have none of this either, and played it fully drawn out as notated eighths. It sounded quite odd, broad and lumpily asymmetrical, and I discovered doing cursory researches (meaning using the web) that many others do that too, and as many do something in between, including various performances of those rather awful Schoenberg and Busoni transcriptions. Surely Hall has his reasons here too and there are arguments in the Bach journals even as we speak about how properly to do the rhythms of the opening statement of this grand piece. (Or maybe they’ve been going on for decades and I haven’t heard about them.)
In the event, it all came to sound potent, portentous, forceful, and close to overpowering, with the Old West Fisk thundering as it can and Hall awesomely riding the fugue home. A satisfying close, it made one want to call out, “Hey, you’re in the zone now, so can you please leave the instrument set as is and do 537 again?” Rock on, Matthew Hall.
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Out of curiosity, I pursued the E-flat’s opening rhythm interpretation issues, since getting Bach’s powerful declamation in proper order is essential. A local amateur organist offered, “In general, in the matter of how long or short the short note is to be, the length is adjusted by how soon the note starts, since, if we are to remain in tempo, it must end on schedule, in order that the long, accented note of the next bar’s downbeat can start on schedule as well. So if you want the short note longer, you shorten the silence before it and start it early. Hall, however, practically put a fermata over the short note. In other words, he held it well into what should have been the downbeat, thus creating a sudden distortion of the rhythmic framework. Perhaps this would work as an acquired taste, but it seemed at first hearing to be more a case of trying to resolve a somewhat sticky executional challenge (we all understand the accent pattern Bach is using but in practice it’s not easy to make it sound graceful and natural) by simply playing up its awkwardness.”
One of the more prominent and senior of Heiller’s European students added: “Heiller always taught the note in question to be played as a sixteenth. Organists tend now to play an eighth note, as it is written. I’m not sure whether this a result of new musicological insight; it is in my opinion one of these cyclic changes in interpretation. When I grew up, old organists played ornaments starting with the main note; then it came more and more in fashion to play all ornaments with the upper note. Nowadays there’s a tendency toward more main notes again. Back to 552, I think it is a good tendency to play that note heavier than it used to be played for a long time—heavy but still late, meaning in the position of the sixteenth note.”