“Binge viewing leaves little time to savor the flavor,” blared the Boston Globe this past Thursday, cruelly needling those BEMF attendees rushing off to see an opera, two symposia, and three fringe concerts before lunch. But your reviewer shrewdly heeded the headline by attending just one event that day: a seven hour organ mini-festival at First Lutheran Church. Featuring William Porter, David Yearsley, and John Scott, each giving verbal program notes before performing programs of about 1.5 hours each. Though the flavor of the day was limited to North German Baroque, the three easily differentiated performances provided much for the audience to mull.
The Richards, Fowkes & Co.’s Opus 10 organ, quite literally built to play this repertoire, was a gem throughout the day. The flutes, their timbres transforming across registers, and the many reeds, constituting a loveable, nasal, chatty family of pipes, delighted audience and performer alike. The mini-fest progressed in two distinct ways: the length of the pre-concert speech, metastasizing from Porter’s few minutes to Scott’s minor filibuster [here], and the general language of articulation, which changed from the languid to the livelier. Porter was a good way to start the day, with his remarkably gentle and sensitive approach to touch. Buxtehude’s “Fried- und Freudenreiche Hinfarth” BuxWV 76, assembled from old and new works to memorialize the composer’s father, was Porter’s finest playing, with a lovely cantabile touch on the Klaglied in particular (sadly performed as transcription, without a singer). But that work, with its text of “cleaving the heart” (“klebt dem herzen”), did not hurt as much as it could have; it needed more lingering, more silence, more Schmerz.
In the other works, much felt measured, rather than improvised, often lacking even a moment’s breath to contemplate any change in affect. But it was ever intelligent playing, never dull, and always colorful, as in Tunder’s grand Praeludium in G Minor, Buxtehude’s far-ranging “Nun freut euch” chorale fantasia, and Weckmann’s broad Magnificat secondi toni. When articulation lacked sparkle, any passages on First Lutheran’s perky flutes or sesquialtera (the day’s, and perhaps instrument’s, Most Valuable Pipe), provided the sort of chipper chiff not inherent to the instrument’s spongier plenum registrations. This was particularly evident in Reincken’s Chorale Fantasia on “Was kann uns kommen an für Not,” or the 23rd Psalm. Did you know that the German version of that passage reads “God leadeth me beside flowing waters,” not “still” ones? Reincken did, and his depiction of this, babbling in its fluidity and repetitiveness, gave Porter the opportunities for quiet subtleties that suited his performance best. The stylus phantasticus was, as Porter noted, the “organist’s counterpart to opera” in Northern Germany. BEMF’s production of the opera Ulisse, amidst the gentle arias and pleasant ritornelli, featured shipwreck, self-harm, vengeful archery, and even a bit of bloody swineicide. Pieces like Buxtehude’s Praeludium in G Major BuxWV 147, with all their shock and majesty and great affective power, cry out for a bit of murder in them, and someone intelligent enough to get away with it. Porter, clearly knowledgeable as he is, stuck largely to the straight and narrow, which was engaging and pleasant, but perhaps not enough for the more bloodthirsty in the crowd.
David Yearsley, energetic where Porter was somber and soothing, devoted his program to father and son duo Delphin and Nicolaus Adam Strungk. Say what you will about the latter, but he sure could write a capriccio: the three selected were lively, funny, and quite unusually contoured. Actually, the two are little known today, with Delphin (1601-1694) unjustly consigned to second-rate Scheidemann status, and Nicolaus (1640-1700) a more daring and Italianate successor to his father. Yearsley’s brisk approach to the keys gave great bounce to Team Strungk’s rapidly repeated unisons in thematic material; the room, though small, is certainly generous enough to accommodate such lightness, and Yearsley’s delightful Italianate ornaments and mastery of clarity on exacting reed stops took advantage of this. Like Porter, his teacher, the chorale oft seemed foremost at Yearsley’s mind when performing pieces like Delphin’s Magnificat noni toni, which gave a refreshing attention to structure, but occasionally left the surrounding filigree too perfunctory.
Overall, though, the concert was delightful, from the “pure prima prattica” of Nicolaus’s “Ricercar”, played delicately on an 8’ flute, or Delphin’s naughtily syncopated prelude on “Lass mich dein sein und bleiben,” sooner recognized as the Passion chorale. Yearsley mentioned a friend’s description of one work, Delphin’s “Toccata ad manuale duplex,” as “twenty minutes of pointless doodling,” which, as critical ammunition goes, is quite low-hanging fruit. But that particular criticism fortunately turned out to be unfounded; the piece only lasted fifteen minutes. Doodling it was, though, of the highest order, with some truly goofy chromatic inflections repeated ad nauseum, colorful trips up and down the circle of fifths, echo effects, and more echo effects. It was not all great music this hour. But it was all extremely effective music, which is often even better. And Nicolaus’s Ricercar devoted to his mother, the close of the program, was achingly affecting, heightened by Yearsley’s use of the Vox Humana with the tremulant: a truly great work. Yearsley is to be commended for championing this clever, fascinating repertoire, and making it so commanding and entertaining. Between his delicate phrasing and limber virtuosity, it was easy to believe that the Strungks could have been as important to organists today as, say, Tunder or Bruhns, had history treated them differently (and if there were perhaps a bit less doodling).
All joking about the length of John Scott’s preamble aside, his State of the North German Organ address was actually quite illuminating. The program’s intent was to display those students and successors of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck while omitting the master himself, featuring Scheidemann, Hieronymus and Jacob Praetorius, Scheidt, Schildt, and plenty of Buxtehude to close. Scheidemann’s Praeambulum in D Minor, a “liturgical extemporization,” immediately demonstrated Scott’s crisper approach to the organ. The use of early fingering was clear, the articulation clean and varied within each phrase, with no fear of silence or air, and a lovely variety of ornaments, all nested in a thoroughly convincing interpretation: the Hieronymus hymn on “Vexilla regis,” placid and lovely; Scheidemann’s eighth-tone Magnificat, here sharply pointed, there smooth and majestic; and Scheidt’s “Bergamasca,” using almost every part of the organ, including the remarkably jangly Zimbelstern. The lattermost’s 22 variations showed off wide flutes flowing like water, repeated figures on the principal imitating a tremolo, and seemingly every reed on the organ in different clever figurations.
The Passacaglia in D Minor BuxWV 161 of Buxtehude, described by Scott as the height of “emotive counterpoint,” was in fact a bit tentative, with a few too many landings keeping the work from getting off the ground entirely. Scott’s decidedly sharp approach to touch also failed to connect at the very end of the same composer’s Praeludium in G Minor, an incredibly dense bit of counterpoint over an ominous, growling ground bass in the pedal; the winding and the room may have benefited from a slower tempo and smoother lines. But the start of that same piece was breathtaking, even seven hours after arrival, as Scott tore through the jagged opening with all the drama of a master rhetorician.
The crowd, which dipped slightly for Yearsley’s unusual program but swelled again for Scott’s, was thoroughly appreciative, as it had been all day. A binge of Baroque it was: three masters of the German Baroque, seven hours, and not even a dozen different composers later, yet each performer’s unique spin on this remarkable repertoire kept those present enraptured to the end.