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At the Console in BEMF Organ Mini-Festival


Catalina Vicens, organetto

An online viewer declared that for the price of $10 you can be right there with Doeselaar at the Arp Schnitger organ console. And from another viewer, “I’m in heaven.” Regarding the organetto program, chat had it that more camera angles would have enhanced understanding of how the simple instrument breathes. And for the festival closer, we learned from an informed listener, “Amazing that this 1766 Byfield organ is still at its original pitch of A=425.” My own checking put the Netherlands organ lower than that.

Wednesday, Boston Early Music Festival posted its recorded Organ Mini-Festival:  Leo van Doeselaar on the Arp Schnitger organ from Martinikerk, Groningen, The Netherlands; Catalina Vincens on organetto from Basil, Switzerland; and Benjamin Alard on the Castle Grant Chamber organ from Musée de Provins, France. The three organists are all noted specialists in historical performance.

The 11:30 opener, “Johann Sebastian Bach, his teachers, and his sons,” with Leo van Doeselaar gathered together Buxtehude, Reinchen, Böhm, Johann Sebastian, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. Side shots of Doeselaar at the manuals with occasional insets of the pedalboard could alter the future of organ recitals. Stops as far away as arms extended, as well as behind the organist, all clearly labeled, could be observed, and, on occasion, which ones had been drawn. As the hour-long program continued, videography, ever so gently, introduced more and more of the church, starting with the façade of golden pipes and finally exposing the nave itself with brightly lighted stained glass windows.

Doeselaar’s hour-long program more than instructed. Buxtehude’s Toccata in D Minor, complex in structure and designed to show a performer’s technique took off in round after round of virtuosity, ultimately achieving a profound vision. Doeselaar then cheerfully countered in a bright, bouncy registration, with Reincken’s Fuga in G minor with its distinct subject, a single note repeated. The clean reeds made their appearance in C.P.E.’s Sonate in A Minor. In J.S.’s familiar Praeludium and Fugue in A Minor, Doeselaar at the Arp Schnitger—a paragon.

At 1:00, “Simple Solace” with Catalina Vincens, organetto, traveled through the Middle Ages sounding some dozen ballades, chants, and laments by Machaut, Landini, Philip the Chancellor, and Hildegard von Bingen. Vincens introduced the organetto as “a very special and simple instrument” played by “angels and minstrels.” Close camera coverage caught the two-octave plus keyboard while barely exposing the instrument’s single set of bellows. Vincens appeared meditative most of time, only breaking into a physical presence toward the middle of her hour-long program. It was with Hildegard von Bingen’s O vos felices radices where Vincens literally moved with the music. 

In Guillaume de Machaut’s Sans cuer dolens, heard twice, the portable organ she held in her lap took on life, breathing, reaching new ears. Songs of Philip the Chancellor followed in like fashion, a certain sensuousness of Machaut yielding to narrative. Francesco Landini’s Altri nara la pena et io ’l danno and Ama donna chi t’ ama a pura fede bounded out of that first set with fast, colorful keyboard action, even getting a bit wild!

As the camera kept close vigil on performer and instrument, opportunities for deep listening arose. Striking dissonances, crescendos and diminuendos, slight articulation maneuvers surprised and informed. While the program could have been shorter, Catalina Vincens shed voluminous light on many Medieval mysteries.  

Castle Grant chamber organ

The 2:30 closer with Benjamin Alard featured music of John Blow, Purcell, Handel and J. S. Bach on the Castle Grant Chamber Organ by John Byfield II, London, 1766, Musée de Provins et du Provinois, Provins, France. In everyday attire and seated on a chair, Alard performed continuously for just under an hour in this unedited recording. Little by little the small room with window facing outside came into view, the focus remaining on a completely absorbed Alard. Yet peeks at the organ revealed two handfuls or so of stops and foot button or piston for changing registration.

The further into Alard’s program the more compelling it became. From the chat box: “Amazing what an organist can do with one manual, no pedals. Bach, Handel, Purcell et al, help, though.” Fine detail ran throughout. For instance, to make up for resonance, at final cadences, Alard held a soprano or bass note all alone for a split second. Voluntaries of John Blow and Henry Purcell refreshed, their musical language outside of textbook tonal theory. Blow’s Morlacke ground invigorated.

For the far more familiar—Handel, Concerto in D Minor, and Bach, Partita on the Choral “O Gott du frommer Gott,” —Benjamin Alard on the Byfield delighted and enthralled in a rare chamber setting.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chair of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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