The second recital I attended by a “major” artist at the Boston 2014 AGO Convention was, to say the least, when not disappointing, infuriating. Thierry Escaich, the organist who succeeded Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) at Sainte-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris presented us with a programme consisting of his own works interspersed among others at the Basilica and Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, aka Mission Church.. I must say, things got off to a pretty good start with the early Brahms (1833-1897) Prelude and Fugue in g. First off, it’s good to hear this piece; Brahms was always first a craftsman even early on (viz., the the two Serenades for orchestra, the three piano sonatas, Piano Trio in B); and that he did have a fondness for the organ. M. Escaich gave a dynamic and clearly articulated performance, if a little monochromatic. Even his performance of Brahms’ choral-prelude on Herzliebster Jesu, Op. 122 #2 was a very smooth performance, albeit, again rather inexpressive and not phrased.
Then things began to deteriorate rapidly: beginning with his own Étude-Choral #3, on the above chorale. What can I say other than it was bountifully dreadful. To go into a description of what was essentially a writing out of one of his improvisations would be a total waste of time. All I can say is that even some of the most angular music I’ve heard that is base on a chorale or hymn or some other tune still affords the listener somewhere in the piece a comprehensible statement of the theme. Evidently M. Escaich doesn’t believe in such things.
Bach did show up on this recital with a completely bland, totally monotonous performance of “In dir ist Freude,” BWV 615 from Orgelbüchlein. I didn’t think it was possible to do that with this sparkling miniature. I love this little gem. It’s one of those pieces you can’t stop practising because it is so much fun to play. There are so many opportunities for colour and expression in this piece; and well, M. Escaich did his best to make it sure that didn’t happen. He started off with one sound, organo pleno, and even through all the repeats did not make one change. Moreover, there was no attempt distinguish one phrase from another. Everything was articulated — or should I say non-articulated — same way from beginning to end. He made a very cheery piece about as lugubrious as a dirge.
Then, next we were treated to another one of his wantonly ugly Étude-Chorals. This time it was #1, based on “Adeste Fidelis.” Again, I could barely determine the melody from all the dissonant filigree. I’m all in favour of disguising a tune at first or even for most of the piece; Vincent d’Indy’s Istar is marvellous example of a theme and variations in reverse. And that’s my point: the listener actually gets to hear the tune eventually. Not here; I’m almost certain if the name of the tune hadn’t been in the title no one would have known upon what melody the piece was based. Lots of colourful effects though. Too bad there wasn’t any music to go with them.
Then followed a thoroughly bland, and phlegmatic rendition of “Christ ist erstanden” BWV 627, again,from Orgelbüchlein. And again, with organo pleno without relief. The only sensation I got from this was, for some reason he felt compelled to add another Bach choral-prelude, so it might as well be this. In other words, he was merely “texting it in” I guess one could say nowadays.
Then came THE BIG PIECES — two movements, “Romance” and “Final,” from the Symphony #4 in g, Op. 32 by Louis Vierne (1870-1937). The “Romance” was ruined by a rushed tempo, no expression, (not observing a number of Vierne’s subtle dynamic markings), and completely ignoring the composer’s phrasing (unfortunately, not unusual for almost any organist). I don’t think he took a single breath during the entire piece. M. Escaich simply walked through this plaintive, sumptuously lyrical, extremely heartfelt piece as if he were sight-reading it. It was depressing listening.
As if that wan’t bad enough. M. Escaich simply raced though the Final with absolutely no regard for anything that had anything to do with the music at all, much less the composer’s intentions. As I write this I find myself becoming very irritated again thinking about how this supposedly first-rate French organist could take one of this great French organ composer’s unique, and most fascinating masterpieces and completely butcher it so cold-bloodedly; all in the name of speed (maybe he was running late for lunch). This is Vierne’s most polyphonic and one of the most rhythmically dynamic works in his oeuvre. The counterpoint is intricate and cross-phrased, with an especially rhythmically driven second theme. All of that was utterly lost in M. Escaich’s frenetic gallop — wrong notes and all — to get through this thing. It was nothing less than appalling.
Then, of course, he had to finish the recital with one of his “celebrated” improvisations. He was given two hymn tunes as themes: “Tidings” and “Slane.” It’s not that they were all that bad, mind you; it was that I failed to see what all the hoopla was all about. If this improvisation was any indication of what he teaches at the Paris Conservatoire then the state of French organ improvisation has succumbed to the level of a first year student’s noodling at the console, and is simply living off a reputation that no longer exists. I’ve known second year piano and organ students who have done just as well, even better. Gerre Hancock he ain’t.
The final insult to me was that this audience of so-called professionals gave this buffoon not just respectful applause, which any civilised audience would have done. Rather, M. Escaich got not just an enthusiastic ovation, he received a STANDING ovation! For what? Abusing a handful of well-known works and then torturing us with his own abominations? Is it any wonder why the majority of classical music lovers in this country hate organ music and openly avoid organ recitals? You have to be a special kind of masochist to enjoy this sort of thing.