in: Reviews

June 15, 2015

Seven Hours of Grosse Orgel

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Fowkes organ in First Lutheran Church

Fowkes organ in First Lutheran Church

“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.

Richards, Fowkes (BMInt staff photo)

Richards, Fowkes (BMInt staff photo)

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.

Jacob Street is an organist and harpsichordist who received his Master’s from Oberlin Conservatory in 2012, and currently studies at the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale. While at Oberlin, Jacob was awarded the inaugural Rubin Prize for Music Criticism

2 Comments

  1. Die Herren Strungk, Pater und Sohn

    How charming to finally encounter enough of Delphin Strungk (1601-1694) and Nicolaus Strungk (1640-1700) in concert to write about on their own. As a recording engineer swimming in the broad stream of concurrent Fringe concerts, I was deeply frustrated at not being able to attend this segment of BEMF’s perennially appealing Organ Mini-Festival. Still, Jacob Street’s enthused write-up of it all gave notice of the enduring pull of this irresistible biennial overdose.

    First Lutheran’s Richards, Fowkes, Op. X, is a virtually ideal medium for Central and North German organ music from the tag-end of 17th-c. repertoire through, arguably, the renewal so brilliantly announced by Felix Mendelssohn–Bartholdy, as he’s known over here. It’s conceivable, then, that the instrument’s mid-late-18th-c. temperament (Kellner: flavorful & howl-less) suits the more post-Frescobaldian, post-Scheidemann intervals and gestures of figlio Nicolaus Adam. It does not, however, pose the listening ear the strongly interval-based tickles, challenges, and delights of the various meantone temperaments that were the native waters in which Pater and, often enough, son mostly swam.

    As you will know if you’ve played or listened extensively in the harmonic/sonic world of pre-well-tempered Buxethude, of Wegmann and Scheidemann, even of much early Bach, the works in question begin to come vibrantly alive only when both “primitive” earlier temperaments are at play and the overtone-rich, generally less fundamental and blended timbral nature of an instrument highlight and underpin the itchy deliciousness of strongly interval-based music. And so, one must say, listeners at David Yearsley’s multi-course luncheon of Strungk Vorspeisen and Hauptgerichte were granted access to a portion of the specialized palette required for their proper digestion. The fuller, later-Baroque timbral spectrum of the sizable two-manual Richards, Fowkes organ are just that much beyond the world of sounds the Strungks knew (in Braunschweig, Celle, and Wolfenbüttel).

    Mr. Yearsley’s profoundly satisfying late-1990s recording of the bulk of the surviving organ music by both Strungks (Loft LRCD1010) comes closer. It initially puzzled me that he chose the admittedly gorgeous four-manual meantone organ at Norden (Arp Schnitger, 1686-92). His choice of instrument may have stemmed from the fact that, at that time, the arguably more contemporaneous large organs of Tangermünde (Hans Scherer/Hamburg, 1624) and St.-Marien, Stralsund (Friedrich Stellwagen/Lübeck, 1659) were not yet in the state they are today. The much more familiar Schnitger æsthetic is very attractive, yet it takes virtuosic registrational chops (Yearsley has ’em in spades) to pull late-Renaissance pike and early-North-German-Baroque trout out of the mid-Baroque brine at Norden, if you’ll pardon a gilled analogy.

    In Boston, only Charles Fisk’s exceptional three-manual organ at Old West (1971) parallels the registrational resources of First Lutheran’s RF, Op. X, in offering the color and ease of articulation (for master players, that is) suited to this still rare and unfamiliar style of composition.

    I disagree with some writers that papa and son Strungk are third-rate. Rather — our North American ignorance of the spectrum of repertoire in question bears serious broadening here — this music is a welcome enhancement of what we know of the brilliant musicians populating 17th-c. court, Orgelempore, and salon environments strung richly across the culturally roiling (and politically miserable) Germany of that time. David Yearsley’s lasting effect last Thursday was to start chins wagging for, against, and about two extraordinary musical figures whose lives spanned the whole of the 17th century. That’s quite an achievement. Thanks to Jacob Street for his insightful chronicling, as we turn a rewarding corner in our local music life.

    Comment by Christopher Greenleaf — June 18, 2015 at 10:11 am

  2. Eagle-eyed Cheryl Ryder just dropped me a note: “You mean the Wellesley organ, yes, not the Old West one? Arvid Gast on Wellesley: ‘Yes, that’s my organ.’ Plus a few sub-semitones and an older temperament than what [his own Stellwagen in] St.-Jakobi [Lübeck] has at present.”

    To which I offered: “No, I actually meant the Old West instrument, primarily for tonal/timbral reasons. I know CBF’s Houghton Chapel organ well and admire it with all my heart. Howevr, a) it is situated in a deeply compromised acoustic unflattering to organ sound, and b) it’s of an earlier, Renaissance-leaning æsthetic, suitable for most but demonstrably not all of Strungk. That’s seven decades of stylistic evolution, after all. Despite certain neo-organ-revival characteristics of the Old West Fisk – notably slight promince of 4’ sound in the more powerful ranks – it remains a convincing instrument for meeting the angular, wonderfully rhetorical music by both Strungks. Old West’s open, true ambience, though but mildly reverberant, is pleasurable for scores of any era. The appalling “living conditions” for Charles Fisk’s brilliant Wellesley organ so diminish its appeal that I seldom go there; though I revel in recording this organ in high-resolution stereo… go figure.

    Comment by Christopher Greenleaf, again — June 18, 2015 at 1:22 pm

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