IN: Reviews

BEMF Does Organ Mini-Festival

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Luca Guglielmi (file photo)

On a rainy, chilly Thursday, a large, undaunted audience gathered to hear the three organ “mini-festivals” that came under the umbrella (so to speak) of the Boston Early Musical Festival 2019. Using the full resources of the much-praised 2000 Richards, Fowkes organ at First Lutheran Church, Boston, three distinguished performers gave us a generous sampling of music from the early Renaissance to the late Baroque, demonstrating how Italian keyboard and vocal music crossed the Alps to influence the organ music of Germany, England, and France. These carefully planned programs were explicitly tied in to the week’s major offering, the opera Orlando generoso by Agostino Steffani, particularly the Festival’s recurring theme of “dreams and madness.”

Luca Guglielmi began the day at 9:00am with “North-South Fantastic,” a selection of pieces centering on Girolamo Frescobaldi, arguably the last great Italian keyboard virtuoso of the Baroque, whose work was hardly short of revolutionary in Italy and, indeed, most of Europe. His Toccata Quinta featured occasional head-turning harmonies and some florid passagework characteristic of the stylus phantasticus which later became the preeminent trademark of the North German organ school. The next two pieces, the Sixth Toccata and Sixth Canzona of Johann Jacob Froberger (1616-1667), a southern German composer who studied with Frescobaldi, showed that this style wasn’t limited to the north.

The performer created a more ethereal atmosphere in Frescobaldi’s Toccata Quarta with yearning suspensions and, using the tremulant, an evocation of the gently undulating Italian voce umana—showing that this seemingly staunchly North German-style organ can speak other tongues well.

Bernardo Pasquini (1637-1710) provided a refreshing momentary diversion with his Pastorale from the intellectual rigor of the preceding. This work seemed inspired by al fresco country dances, and Guglielmi charmed the audience with graceful dances and amused us too with his generous use of the Vogelgesang stop—the German equivalent of Italian organs’ uccelli—which reproduces birdsong with surprising fidelity by means of a pipe or pipes partially submerged in water.

The artist continued to highlight the decisive influence of Frescobaldi on the nascent North German Baroque organ style, alternating the Italian composer’s works in different forms (Recercar, Toccata duocecima, and Bergamasca) with the vigorously characterized Praeludium in G Minor of Franz Tunder (1614-1667), a Frescobaldi protegé, and the Fugue in C Major and Praeludium in G Minor of Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707), onetime student of Tunder. The fugue is Buxtehude’s own “jig fugue”, which the artist played with irrepressible high spirits on sweetly piping flutes; the praeludium was indeed fantastical with stark dynamic contrasts (Guglielmi’s stop-puller(s) must have been quite busy!), nicely varied articulation, and manic passagework cut off by chords at the end. The standing ovation at the conclusion led to one encore: the Fugue of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in A Minor (BWV 904) for clavier, here adapted so cleverly by the performer—adding a pedal line—that it was entirely convincing as a powerful organ work of Bach’s maturity.

David Yearsley (file photo)

For the midday recital, “Visions of Steffani at the Organ,” we had a verbal introduction of considerable length by the performer, David Yearsley, who had also spoken ahead of the first recital. This time he addressed much of his commentary specifically to Agostino Steffani (1654-1728), composer of the aforementioned opera, Orlando generoso, and a man of extraordinarly diverse abilities whose career encompassed the roles of priest, court organist, diplomat, bishop, and composer. While no organ music from Steffani’s pen has come down to us (nearly all his extant works are for voice), the undaunted Yearsley performed a suite of his own transcriptions from Orlando, compellingly. Highlights included the graceful Gigue, whose dotted rhythms made it seem like a lively sicilienne, and the final Chaconne, which was a not-so-distant cousin of the inescapable Pachelbel Canon but displaying more fertility of imagination and concluding with a fugue.

Works by two more “transalpinist” Germans followed: the Toccata in G of Johann Caspar Kerll (1627-1693) and a ricercar and capriccio by Nicolaus Adam Strungk (1640-1700). Yearsley made vivid contrasts of Kerll’s serene passages and ever-increasingly brilliant passagework. Strungk’s capriccio skillfully melded Italian flamboyance with a German chorale of thanks; as described in Yearsley’s program notes, it was “a clever and compelling reconciliation of Lutheran hymn and Catholic counterpoint,” and in the artist’s rendering, this never seemed like an “odd couple.”

Since Steffani spent time in much of northern Europe, including Paris, it was fitting that we heard some French works of his time, including transcriptions of opera. Jean-Henri D’Anglebert (1629-1691) transcribed excerpts from the operas of his contemporary Jean-Baptiste Lully and also crafted five fugues on the same subject. Lully’s Overture from Cadmus and Chaconne from Phaëton had rather more counterpoint than one might expect in opera but also the typical double-dotted rhythms and copious ornamentation; the Menuet (“Dans nos bois”) was sedate and used a colorful reed with tremulant registration. D’Anglebert’s five fugues are something of an early, small-scale Art of the Fugue, imaginatively illustrating the range of possibilities from a single fugue subject, aided by Yearsley’s imaginative performance.

The Ouverture di Steffani was transcribed from the opera Briseide, now generally thought to be the original conception of Pietro Torri (ca. 1650-1737), who was Steffani’s colleague for a time in Hanover, Germany. This overture united French and Italian operatic conventions for Hanover’s cosmopolitan German audience. Yearsley gave its four sections discrete characters, not least with creative sound colors.

We returned to genuine solo organ music with the Praeludium in A Minor of Georg Böhm (1661-1733), an early teacher of J. S. Bach in Lüneburg. Despite its brevity, the piece showed the full flowering of the stylus phantasticus, with extended arpeggios and passagework alongside more rigorous polyphony, in Yearsley’s dynamic account.

The recital ended with a final transcription, again by the performer, of George Frideric Handel’s Organ Concerto in G Minor/Major, Op. 4, No. 1. Even in an era when composers’ borrowing from one another was commonplace, Handel was an exceptional musical magpie, and Steffani (including Orlando generoso) was one of his favorite sources from his young adulthood in Germany. While there may not have been actual Steffani themes here, the work incorporated his influence as well as Lully’s and perhaps even the spirit of Pasquini’s Pastorale (the second movement’s cuckoo calls). Though Yearsley’s active footwork would likely have exceeded the composer’s pedal skills, his performance made a convincing case for the concerto as solo organ music.

Kimberly Marshall (file photo)

In the day’s final recital, “Transalpine Organ Adventures, 1450-1750,” Kimberly Marshall covered the largest chronological and geographical span while further delineating the cross-fertilizing musical elements of Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and England. Taking J. S. Bach’s Clavierübung III (Keyboard Practice III!) as model, Marshall framed her program with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E Flat (BWV 552) but replacing Bach’s chorale settings with a diverse assortment of composers from those four countries. In the recurrent “French overture” section of the prelude, Marshall’s rhythm was discreetly quasi-double-dotted, allowing the pedal’s 16’ Posaune to speak fully but retaining the requisite majesty. Her well-considered groupings and articulations maintained clarity throughout.

Jumping back nearly three centuries, the artist played two pieces from the Buxheim Organ Book, a mid-15th-century collection of some 250 original organ works and transcriptions by composers from various countries. Given the cosmopolitan nature of the day’s offerings—and the works’ titles being in Latin and from anonymous composers—it was left to the audience to decide their country of origin. The very brief Praeambulum super mi alternated a singing voice with chords in early Renaissance style while the Redeuntes [literally, “returning ones”] in mi constructed variations of changing rhythms and meters over an E drone (mi) in the bass.

Coming back to the Festival’s “dreams & madness” theme, Marshall likened Uppon [sic] la mi re, composed by an anonymous English composer ca. 1530, to “Orlando’s melt-down” scene, and indeed some of its improvisatory flights of fancy and arresting harmonies did seem fitting to the theme. The next composer, Alfonso Ferrabosco (1543-1588), was of Italian origin but spent most of his career in England and was noted for bringing the madrigal genre from Italy to England—as well as being rumored to have been a spy for Elizabeth I. His Fancy was an imitative fantasia sprinkled with harmonic cross-relations which commenced with a simple texture but became ever-showier with added runs and figuration, culminating in a courtly dance.

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) was an appropriate inclusion since, like Frescobaldi, he was influenced by the earlier Italian Claudio Merulo and, in turn, helped give rise to the stylus fantasticus and North German organ school. The sometimes startling harmonies of his Fantasia chromatica were again linked by the performer to the “madness” idea. This led naturally to Frescobaldi’s Partite sopra Follia, Variations on Follia, a term for various chord patterns but literally meaning “madness,” which put a galliard-like main theme through a variety of textures and colors.

Fowkes organ

Like his younger contemporaries, Georg Böhm and Nicolaus Bruhns (1665-1697), Dieterich Buxtehude represented the apogee of the North German organ style. His Passacaglia in D Minor is arguably the best-known example of its type before J. S. Bach’s solitary contribution. Marshall advanced a theory that this work represented the four phases of the moon (perhaps an indirect reference to “moonstruck” madness), and her interpretation underscored the same. The passacaglia is organized in four sections, each comprised of seven iterations of the pedal ostinato with variations above it. Whereas the conventional approach to the work is a more or less continuous crescendo to the end, this performer registered the four sections at differing dynamic levels, loudest in the third and quietly mysterious in the fourth (“the new moon”). This was an unusual and intriguing approach to a very familiar organ work.

Marshall found time for one final “mad piece,” the Partite diverse di Follia of Pasquini, using a different follia than Frescobaldi’s but likewise increasingly manic. The main theme was a dance theme of arch personality to which the artist gave a strong rhythmic character. As in the morning’s Pastorale, the Vogelgesang made a delightfully daffy appearance. Losing one’s marbles should always be so fun!

The program—and indeed, the whole day’s proceedings—culminated almost inevitably with J. S. Bach, in his Fugue in E Flat (BWV 552). Typical of Bach’s genius, this triple fugue synthesizes diverse musical styles and periods into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and its trinitarian symbolism is also evident well beyond the three flats of the key signature. The majestic opening section reflects the “antique style” of Italian Renaissance polyphony, dignified and sonorous, to represent God the Father. The youthful scampering of the second subject undoubtedly evokes God the Son while the sustained first subject reappears in counterpoint at times. The whirling jig rhythm of the third section also depicts the rushing wind of God the Holy Spirit. As Bach united the three fugue subjects, Marshall brought the great fugue to a conclusion both grand and exuberant.

It is a hallmark of the Boston Early Music Festival generally to place equal emphasis on scholarship and historically informed and virtuosic performances. If the academic component of these three mini-festivals was perhaps more than the average local listener would be interested in, the majority of the audience were full participants in the Festival who could enjoy hearing examples of what they’ve learned in music history. And for most any audience member, I daresay these performances were technically excellent, stylistically authentic, and creatively entertaining, a fine example of appealing to concertgoers’ hearts and minds equally.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

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  1. Very insightful and perceptive review. Congrats to Wieting!

    Comment by Edith Ho — June 19, 2019 at 1:08 pm

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