Boston Bach International Organ Competition’s inaugural-year events included a Tuesday-night concert featuring three of its distinguished panel of organist/judges in a concert at Harvard University’s Memorial Church on the church’s acclaimed 2013 C. B. Fisk in the rear gallery and the restored 1929 E. M. Skinner in Appleton Chapel. We heard Romantic and Contemporary pieces—with a smattering of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Christa Rakich began with a valuable spoken introduction to her pair of pieces. Conferring with the composer Margaretha Christina de Jong, Rakich had suggested she write something “more Catholic” in style, and the result was the Fantasia on Salve Regina, completed in 2016. The performer described the piece, quite aptly, as Maurice Duruflé meets Duke Ellington, using many of the techniques and colors of the French composer’s variations on Veni Creator Spiritus while occasionally infusing them with the harmonies of the American jazz legend. Rakich made vivid use of a wide variety of colors including solo and accompanying flutes, clarinet, vox humana, and of course, the grand and powerful but never oppressive tutti.
Her second selection, the delightfully titled “Extravagance of Toccatas” (2012) by James Woodman, paid homage to the hugely contrasted toccatas (literally “things to play”) of different eras and countries. The first section—pro Organo pleno (for full organ)—evoked pre-Bach North German works in the stilus phantasticus with pedal solos crowned by manual interjections, polyphonic development, and multiple flourishes at its end. The second—pro Organo aetherio (for ethereal organ) —was a modern reimagining of a Renaissance Italian toccata in the manner of Frescobaldi but using a string celeste as a reasonable facsimile of a voce umana, not a reed stop at all, but an intimate foundation stop, to accompany a luscious harmonic flute. The final section—pro Organo flagrante (for fiery organ) adopted the mode of the famous French toccatas of the late 19th and 20th centuries. In this brilliant piece there is a near constant accompaniment of swirling figuration while Woodman creatively has the sustained melody migrate to different locations throughout the texture. Rakich’s imaginative playing and registrations advocated very effectively for the two gifted composers.
Shifting our attention to the front of Memorial Church, Christian Lane shared three organ works of Elgar on the E. M. Skinner of Appleton Chapel. While this instrument cannot compete with the Fisk for sheer power, at least in the nave of the sanctuary, its individual sounds yield nothing in terms of beauty and refinement. Elgar was not an organist, and even his masterpiece, the Sonata in G Major, Op. 28, is not ideally idiomatic organ writing, but Lane’s playing of the first movement, Allegro maestoso, made it seem so nonetheless. Judicious registrations brought out the beauty of Elgar’s conception, e.g., the English tuba-like reed in fanfare figures and the bright garlands of flute roulades and trills. The artist drew a refreshing contrast between the imperious first theme and the folksy second theme, and the several extended orchestral crescendos were admirably smooth.
Lane rounded out the group with the paired Chanson de Nuit & Chanson de Matin, Op. 15. These were essentially salon pieces though written for the organ. The first is a sweet, graceful nocturne, and the second, equally subdued dynamically but rather more energetic, evoked for me the effect of birdsong heard from indoors. Both pieces made charming use of the harp stop at each conclusion in Lane’s beguiling performance.
Arvid Gast, of Lübeck, Germany, and chair of the competition judges, supplied the final set on the Fisk, offering more strongly contrasted pieces than his fellow judges had: three chorale preludes of J. S. Bach and one of Max Reger. The “Schübler Chorales” are Bach’s organ transcriptions of six selected movements from his cantatas, of which Gast played three. Wachet auf (Sleepers Awake, a Voice is Calling) was bracing and energetic with crisp articulation and phrasing and an engaging duet between the accompanying melody on a cornet combination and the chorale itself on a trumpet stop. In Ach bleib bei uns (O Remain with us, Lord Jesus Christ), the physical awkwardness of the writing transferred to keyboard was entirely concealed in the artist’s precise, vigorous performance. Kommst du nun, Jesu (Come Thou, Jesu, from Heaven down to Earth) puts the player through even greater contortions, but again Gast handled them virtually effortlessly. Bach’s ingenious use of a 4’ pedal stop for the chorale melody might well lead non-organists to conclude this is a complex piece for hands only, when played as skillfully as it was here.
For a rousing finish, Gast chose Max Reger’s chorale fantasia on Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress is our God), Op. 27. In a short lifespan of 43 years, Reger produced a prodigious body of works, including many for organ. While the writing in this work is never less than competent, it is not as accomplished as that of his later fantasies, especially those of Opp. 40 and 52. Nevertheless, Gast gave it powerful commitment, making fine use of the rich resources of the Fisk organ while playing with drama, expressivity, and virtuosity. The clarity of counterpoint throughout the enormous dynamic range and the cumulative excitement through the last section stood out in this rendering.