Trying Again

I know, I kept promising myself that I was going to post something every day; or, at least nearly every day.  Well, it hasn’t worked out quite, has it.  I suppose a lot of the issues of which I have strong feelings are ones that potentially get me into trouble.  And then there’s the general malaise of me getting in my own way.  I want to express my thoughts, but they’re constantly being crowded out by the other things I feel compelled to do.  I’m easily distracted, that’s a certainty; living with what I sure is undiagnosed ADD doesn’t help.  Moreover, writing words is almost as difficult — maybe even harder — as writing music.  Making sure that I find the right word for the right phrase in a properly constructed, albeit Jamesianly complex sentence, can be quite a challenge.  The last thing I want is for someone to misunderstand my thinking because I didn’t take the time to make fully clear and complete my thought.  Too many writers, especially bloggers and columnists (I’m sure with journalists time constraints via deadlines have much to do with it) often times write things that are not complete, or perfectly clear living themselves open to misinterpretation or misunderstanding.  With my writing I look at it as: if you misunderstood me you 1) didn’t read everything I wrote, or 2) you are not very bright.  In any event I’ll try to do better.

So today, I found myself concentrating on the piano and the 2nd movement to my piano quintet.  I returned to the quintet mainly as a diversion from the choral piece with which I’ve been stalled.  It’s taken me a few days to “get back into the groove” since it’s been a few months since I’ve even looked at the quintet.  But, after playing it through it a few times to remind me what I’ve actually done, and then getting passed the intimidation of trying to live up to what I have written, the ideas gradually began to emanate.  My problem, that is, what makes composing such a chore for me, is I write almost exclusively in a contrapuntal style.  Although I love rich, sumptuous harmonies (I was listening and swooning to Granville Bantock’s harmonically sybaritic song cycle Sappho yesterday on RBTF’s Musiq3), and though I strive for my counterpoint to achieve that level of sensuality, I find it difficult to write notes that aren’t in some way some form of development or statement, full or partial, of the thematic material with which I’ve introduced the piece.  I guess, I look at “writing chords” (either as simultaneities or as arpeggios) as a kind of copout.  If I can’t come up with a line that derives directly from the initial thematic material then I’m just being lazy.  I’ve gotten a little better; my opening to the second movement to the quintet actually is a tune over repeated, ever chromatically changing, chords; but, then after that, when the four strings appear its counterpoint all the way.  Again, not just a melody with countermelodies, but each line is in some form use of the “tune.”  It’s not as simple as one might assume, especially since I compose tonally.  That means all this linear chromaticism and counterpoint has to fit together in such a way so as to not sound, as Ralph Vaughan Williams once said, like “one of those wrong note boys.”  Notwithstanding, I have actually made some serious progress, not allowing myself to be overly distracted.

Of course, that’s easier said than done.  I did find myself going back and forth between my desk and the piano, finding one to be a pleasant distraction from the other.  Primarily, I found playing the piano as a “break” as it were, from composing, sort of clearing my head a little before returning to the task.

As to the piano, it’s not my favourite instrument.  The organ is.  Anyone who knows me knows that I love the organ with an unbridled passion.  Yet, my relationship with instrument has always been somewhat tumultuous.  Not so much the instrument as with organ “world” (without needless repetition allow me to refer those readers unfamiliar with my thoughts on the organ to my earlier columns here).  Nevertheless, being without an organ on which to practise since I moved up to New England, I’m stuck playing the piano.  Fortunately I’ve had the satisfaction of practising accompaniments to art songs which I find most rewarding.  However, today was little different.  Today was sight-reading day.  Something at which I can safely say am woefully substandard.  I’ve never been a good sight-reader; but, years of inadequate practise has definitely left me found wanting in this area.  So, I’ve anew on a campaign to start going through my library and just read through some of this stuff.  Today I started with the complete song cycle by Kathleen Lockhart Manning Sketches of Paris, from which comes her most noted song “In the Luxembourg Gardens.”  I love this music and all the other songs from that group of women from the turn of the 20th Century I like to refer to as Women Composers with Three Names.  So, I read through them a few times and definitely plan to include them with my other songs by Mildred Lund Tyson, Elinor Remick Warren, Mary Turner Salter, and Teresa del Riego.  Now all I have to do is find a singer (preferably high voice since those are usually the original keys) to do these things.  If you singers out there don’t know these composers and their songs, you would be wise to look them up (among others e.g., Clara Edwards, Lily Strickland, Alice Barnett, etc.).  They wrote eminently singable songs with a truly sympathetic ear for the voice.

Then I actually read through some Schubert Moments Musicaux D.780 (Op. 94 #’s 1,2,3 & 5) and #1 from Drei Klavierstücke D.946 (Bärenreiter Edition of course).  Actual piano music!  And guess what?  It was not a displeasurable experience.  They’re easier than I had anticipated.  I might even enjoy some of this stuff if I’m not careful.

Of course a day can’t go by without something to despond me.  And lo it was, of course, an organ work.  Again for the second year now, because of my current circumstances (i.e., without an organ on which to play), I found myself relearning what I think is Jean Langlais’ finest work, La Nativité.  It is a work of such sublime elegance and beauty I find it beyond the dreams of inspiration.  I wish I could describe how its sheer unaffected, delicate beauty moves me.  It is because of that inexplicable beauty I used play it every year on Christmas Eve.  I loved sharing this precious gem of a piece.  So, as I was looking through it again sans pedale, in a futile preparation of the upcoming season,  I became quite depressed when I came to the realisation that, yet, another year will pass without my being able to share this exquisite little masterpiece.  It breaks my heart. It is times like this I wish I had never, NEVER become an organist.  It’s as if you’ve had the love of your life, since you were 12, taken from you and no one — no one who can — will help bring her back to you.

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Art Song & Piano Pedalling II, “Ganymed” pt. B

So how should we approach Schubert’s “Ganymed?” First and foremost, take your confounded foot off the damper pedal! As I’ve ranted on before (and will continue to do so in the future I’m sure) keyboard musicians, whether it’s organists and their ceaseless slithering legato, or pianists with their obsessive use of the damper pedal, simply refuse to follow a composer’s phrasing and articulations; that is, unless it’s blatantly obvious. In short, organists play with too much legato, whilst pianists (our subject here) don’t play with enough — at least not legitimately. What do I mean by legitimately? Well, ironically, that means doing what organists have to do: connect the notes as smoothly as possible without a damper pedal. That sometimes requires some unorthodox fingering; but, so what? You do what you have do in order to get the job done.

OK, let’s start from the beginning. From the onset we see automatically that there are problems when it comes to pedalling. In the left hand it is clearly marked staccato whilst the right hand plays basically legato with a variety of phrasings. It’s this separation of articulation between hands that makes use of the damper pedal problematic. Utilisation of the damper will immediately kill the staccato in the left hand, which should remain constant up to the third beat of m.6:

Opening

Which, is then followed by a measure of all legato:

Pasted Graphic 11

which any pianist should be able to play smoothly without pedal.

The staccato returns at m.8 and continues non-stop until the D minor chord at m.28. Moreover, pedalling can be cumbersome if the right hand is to be articulated according to Schubert’s indications. This is where pianists must learn to play legato with their fingers and not with the pedal.

So, at this point we have to review a basic lesson in articulation: at the end of a phrase one is supposed to cut the note a little short at the terminal point of the slur — sort of a breathing point or a change of bow direction (for string players). And that’s what we have here: the first two notes in the right hand have a slur (meaning the second note is clipped) followed by a full valued quarter note chord on beat four:

Meas. 3

In the second measure the melody has a quarter note-dotted-8th-16th — all as one phrase:

Meas. 2

Note: the slur terminates on the the sixteenth NOT the following half note — meaning the sixteenth is cut short not elided into the half note as it is typically played. This is critical as it affects the whole demeanour of the opening to this song. Pedalling, and the blurring it produces between notes, gives us a languid, somewhat blasé sensation, rather than the lighter, even jaunty impression more representative of Ganymede’s buoyant disposition on such a bright, sunny, Spring morning, if played without pedal and the phrasing is followed as the composer calls out. Moreover, playing this passage without pedal also helps achieve the needed stress on the struck suspension at the beginning of the measure.

In m.3 whilst the left hand continues its staccato (although it is no longer indicated, it is implied), the right hand is phrased legato (beat four being shortened again because of the slur).

Meas. 3

The fourth measure requires two different forms of articulation in the right hand: the C and A are legato to the B and G, whilst the lower voice (C-D-D♮) is an inverted version of the dotted rhythm from before (including the accent); again with the shortened 16th note, meanwhile, all along the left hand maintains a steady staccato.

Meas. 4

These three forms of articulation are really quite impossible to achieve with any kind of use of the damper pedal.

Not dissimilarly, with mm. 19—28 the right hand, again, has two distinctive yet simultaneous forms of articulation: the two upper voices are grouped under a whole measure phrase and should be played at full value (except for the last note, of course); i. e., legato; whilst the lower voice is phrased in couplets, requiring a contrasting technique in the same hand.

Meas. 19

Although discreet pedalling could aid in the right hand’s “double articulation” the bear bug is still the persistent staccato in the left. In order to maintain that staccato one simply cannot pedal this opening section up to and including the D minor chord. Legato can be more easily achieved with the next four chords with the pedal (although I personally recommend trying to utilise one’s best “organ technique” maintaining the abstinence of pedal), just so long as the last chord at the end of the phrase is properly shortened:

Meas. 28

This too is important since the vocal line doesn’t end for another measure and a half. Moreover, abiding to the phrasing gives the subsequent G♭ chord at m. 30 (with its own alto voice phrase) greater definition as the dominant to the upcoming passage in C♭:

Meas. 30

This next section (mm. 31—45) also gives us no need to use the damper pedal; although it can be used without corrupting the line if the pianist lifts his foot on the second beat of every measure and clips the 16th note at the end of the phrase:

Meas. 31(pedalling added)

However, eschewing the pedal does facilitate the accent on the second beat in the left hand.

When we arrive at mm. 46—49 where he modulates from G (F) to E, it’s important to note that he doesn’t change key signature until the second beat of m. 46:

Meas. 46

Here again avoiding the damper pedal makes perfect sense. It allows enough space for the accents as called out in the score without overdoing it. Moreover, see how the left and right hands are phrased differently. The left hand can be a little confusing since Schubert has two slurs ending and then being on the same note. My approach would be to play the C -B-C as one whole phrase, and in the right hand the C-D as a separate phrase. Of course it should go without saying that the staccato notes should be pedal less.  Unfortunately, I’ve heard “famous” musicians (not the least of whom was Britten) slosh their way through with the damper down, ignoring the composer’s markings completely.

When we come to mm.56—59, with the piano denoting the “Morning wind,” discreet pedalling can actually come in quite handy in creating the necessary effect. The problem, of course, is the threat of overdoing it.

Meas. 56

Again, observe that the slurs terminate on the 16th notes, not played through, which is a clear indication that as where to lift your foot if one is using  the damper pedal here.

Measures 60 — 67 we return to eschewing the need for the use of the damper pedal:

Meas. 60… Meas. 67

if for no other reason than to avoid blurring the phrase that is marked to be cut short at end of the second beat of the measure.

The next section m.68 up through the third beat of m.78 is pretty straightforward: it is all marked staccato with the tempo un poco accel. There’s a cresc. to f and a decresc. Then, in typical Schubertian fashion, he modulates up a half step to F, and by means of numerous upward modulations arrives at the key bb and with a ff dynamic at m.78. But, look what happens in the second half of the measure:

Meas 77

Not only does the composer change mode, (minor to major) and what is in essence a subito piano on the fourth beat, but also makes a radical change from a loud staccato to a very short, legato TWO NOTE phrase! This subito cannot be fully achieved with the damper pedal. Although using the pedal will achieve a noticeable change in articulation and will make for some change in dynamic, it is monumentally more difficult to achieve the level of dynamic contrast indicated, still obtain the legato called for, AND properly articulate a phrase of just two notes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s possible to achieve all of this with pedalling; but, why go through all of the extra effort? It is so much easier when you avoid any pedalling whatsoever at this junction.

From this point on up to the final cadence there isn’t any need, or purpose, to use the damper pedal at all. In fact (as I’ve preached though out this article), I seriously recommend against the use of any pedalling at all. If you can’t play m.79 (see above) through m.84 and mm.95 — 99 (repeat) smoothly without using the damper pedal, I suggest taking another look at the Bach: 2 Part Inventions. The only place where the pedal assists in maintaining the legato of a progression is m.108:

Meas. 108(pedalling added)

So, let’s say for argument, that what I’ve written is the “correct” way to play this or any other art song. First, when I say correct, I don’t mean interpretation. The interpretation of a work is purely a subjective matter dependent solely upon the performer’s understanding of period style and his/her emotional response to the music; that includes matters of taste.

So, what do I mean by “correct?” Simply follow the composer’s instructions: primarily the phrasing. And that can be most accurately achieved by developing a true and honest legato avoiding use of the damper pedal as much as possible, essentially limiting its application to those points as indicated by the composer, or in the case of most pre-nineteenth century music very sparingly.

Then why don’t other pianists play songs this way? Well, to be absolutely frank — laziness, pure and simple. For all the talk and pontificating about the equal partnership, as most typified by Schubert, between singer and pianist: that the piano is just as important as the voice and the text, we all know it’s the singer that people come to hear who is the “celebrity” of the pair — and the pianist, contrary to Gerald Moore’s protestations, tends to be thought of as background, filler, a little extra colour so as to have more than just the solo voice. As a result there’s a tendency (most likely not a conscious one) to be less than observant to the piano part. Learning the piano part to these songs in this essentially pedal-less manner is considerably more difficult and time consuming; something for which busy musicians often times simply can’t be bothered. As long as they get the notes and the dynamics right they let the singer do all the rest. All those famous pianists I mentioned in the first part to this essay have or had technique far and away superior to mine; and (this may actually be part of the problem) superb sight-reading capabilities; nevertheless, if I can achieve a decent legato line without pedal then any pianist with better technique than mine certainly should. Yes, it’s laziness.

So, if you’re a pianist who accompanies a lot of singers (Mr. Martineau, Mr. Drake, Mr. Vignoles, Mr. Parsons, etc. (hmmm, where are the women, by the way?), and are bothered with what I’ve had to say, what are ya gonna do ‘bout it?

Art Song & Piano Pedalling II, “Ganymed” pt.A

I thought in light of the extended time between this and the Part B, I figured it would be appropriate to repost this

Mostly Music and Curmudgeonry

It came to my attention a little while ago on an online discussion concerning matters on approaching the accompaniment to Schubert’s “Ganymed” D.544. So, not having played the song before I decided to look further into it, and in typical fashion, became obsessed with it. The two main issues of discussion concerned what is essentially a subito piano on the last beat of m.79 (“Es schweben die Wolken…), the other being the possibility of having to pedal the first part of the song; which, if you read my earlier article on this subject, you know I consider this, especially in the case of Schubert, borderline apostate.

As part of my research into this song through the wonders of modern technology I was able examine approximately eighteen different performances, most of which were done with “name” artists — i.e., those who are supposed to be at the top of their game…

View original post 398 more words

Change of Plans

I had planned to publish a diatribe concerning an important art museum—well, not so much as the institution but one of its principle individuals, who has a tendency to be… let’s say… rather petulant and vindictive, who will satisfy that peevishness at any cost, namely on another individual who had no idea that he (me) was a pawn in this little game of vengeance directed (actually misdirected) by this important, albeit unsuccessful, individual toward a previous immediate subordinate.  Taking that into consideration, rather than risk a law suit by this childish, mean spirited individual and his HR flunky I chose not to post my original diatribe.  At leafs I finally got it out of my system and now can hopefully move on.

It’s unfortunate.  I had found a perfect use for floccinaucinihilipilification.

Art Song & Piano Pedalling II, “Ganymed” pt.A

It came to my attention a little while ago on an online discussion concerning matters on approaching the accompaniment to Schubert’s “Ganymed” D.544. So, not having played the song before I decided to look further into it, and in typical fashion, became obsessed with it. The two main issues of discussion concerned what is essentially a subito piano on the last beat of m.79 (“Es schweben die Wolken…), the other being the possibility of having to pedal the first part of the song; which, if you read my earlier article on this subject, you know I consider this, especially in the case of Schubert, borderline apostate.

As part of my research into this song through the wonders of modern technology I was able examine approximately eighteen different performances, most of which were done with “name” artists — i.e., those who are supposed to be at the top of their game, the standard bearers of musicianship, the people the world has counted on to get it right. I’m referring to such couplings as Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Edwin Fischer, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore, Hermann Prey and Gerald Moore, Kathleen Ferrier and Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake, Barbara Bonny and Geoffrey Parsons, Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson, Sarah Walker and Roger Vignoles, plus other singers such as Arleen Auger, Gérard Souzay, Peter Anders and Lucia Popp with their respective, perhaps less famous partners. The one characteristic they had in common was the exquisite singing by the singers and, in every case, allow me to repeat — IN EVERY CASE — the pianist chooses to to ignore most, if not all, of Schubert’s phrase and articulation markings.

Needless to say, I was nonplussed by this revelation. I was particularly disturbed with Britten’s accompanying. One would think that, as a composer and having to deal with performers constantly misunderstanding or ignoring his intentions, he would have had a little more respect for Schubert’s directions; instead, outside of the basic notes and most (not all) of the dynamics Britten pretty much decided he knew better than the composer as to how the piano part was to be played. I can’t determine if it was out of sheer arrogance or simple laziness or — most likely — both.

Gerald Moore, the erstwhile “master” accompanist is not much better. Whereas, his playing is considerably more elegant than Britten’s, and he at least maintains the staccato at mm. 68-78, he still over uses the damper pedal throughout the song. This is especially noticeable, as with the others, at the very opening where the left hand is very clearly marked staccato. The only pianist of the bunch who at least gives some sort of lip service to Schubert’s markings is Graham Johnson, who in light of his monumental Schubert Song Project for Hyperion, I could only hope for at least as much. Notwithstanding, not unlike his colleagues Mr. Johnson still falls short in fidelity to Schubert’s intentions. As for the others, it’s pretty much the same or worse. At least they all had the common courtesy to, for the most part, honour the dynamics.

Therefore, next we’ll take a closer look at the song and see what needs to be done by the accompanist to actually realise the composer’s intentions.

Back in the Saddle Again (maybe)

Wednesday (29/X/14) I actually sat down and practised the piano for the first time in over two months. It feels like a lifetime, and my playing has atrophied so much I feel like I’m starting over from the beginning. Since I don’t have an organ at my disposal (which reminds, I have to contact Peter Krasinski Boston’s new AGO dean for whom I have great hopes), I’m relegated to my little Celviano (Casio’s answer to the Clavinova — except just as good, but cheaper). It feels like I’m starting over (again — for the fourth, fifth or sixth time… I don’t know, I’ve lost count).

Since I don’t do scales, I usually like to warm-up with something like the Gigout Toccata, or the Vierne Carillon de Westminster. It’s a good thing I decided on the Gigout; don’t think I could have finished the Vierne. It’s amazing how much my playing has atrophied.

Anyway, after that I read through a number of art songs. Again, it was like starting all over. Not only relearning some of the notes, but everything was so slow! Have you ever heard Die Forelle Lento? It’s pretty funny. But ya gotta do whatcha gotta do.

In any event, I love playing art song. It (and ragtime, of course) is really the only piano music I actually enjoy playing. I would surmise that it’s the collaborative nature of art song/lieder that I find so compelling: the imagery produced by the synthesis of text and music. Truly fine composers like Malcolm Williamson, Roger Quilter, Gabriel Fauré, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Mildred Lund Tyson, Clara Edwards, Ralph Vaughan Williams, et al, have that ineffable acumen of what works naturally for the voice in relation to the words whilst maintaining the inherent drama (or melodrama if you wish, in some cases) of the overall text.

I like great art song because of its concision. Like the poetry to which it is set it communicates all those marvellous attributes of the human condition into a short, poignant narrative: the redoubtable horror of the Erlköng, melodramatic angst of Gretchen am Spinnrade, the listless ennui of the dancers in Fauré’s Clair de lune, or the haunting melancholy of his Les berceaux or the phrenetic ecstasy of Quilter’s Love’s Philosophy (I mean really, how much fun can you pack into one song!?), or the deliciously “don’t-leave-a-dry-eye-in-the-house” bathos of Teresa del Riego’s Homing. As I mentioned in a previous essay, sadly, I may never get to collaborate with a singer with these songs; but, that’s okay the pleasure for me is all mine.

Then I’ll move over to my other piano repertoire ragtime. What more can I say? It’s ragtime; what’s there not to love. Notwithstanding, it’s piano practise that is more than piano practise it’s good for the soul.

The Case for Memorisation

(Political correctness caveat: I hate having to write “he or she” or “she/he.” So, in an attempt to assuage any gender sensitivity I will alternate by paragraph my gender references to the generalised performer. Grammatically and usage-wise I find it reprehensible; but, God forbid that I damage anyone’s self-esteem.)

I received a comment to a recent review I wrote of an organ recital in which, although this person agreed with most of my impressions, he thought I gave too much importance to the performer’s need to memorise her programme. As an organist I find it not a little disconcerting that this should even be an issue. It seems to be a matter with which only organists have a problem. Almost every soloist I’ve seen and listened to on any other instrument (including voice) performs before an audience without her head buried in a score. So, why not the organist?

There are any number of reasons given, all of which are simply lame excuses. Here’s one: Since most organs are in churches most organ recitals (surprise, surprise) are in churches; this explains — though does not excuse — a lot. Most organ consoles are either buried away in a corner of the chancel behind the choir or completely out of sight in the gallery above the narthex in the back of the sanctuary. Being “hidden” gives the organist a sense of justification for not having to memorise repertoire — out of sight out of mind. Who’s going to know? Well… for one, the audience.

Let me explain: Stephen Best in his article “On Passionate Music Making” wrote about the somnolent experience of attending organ recitals nowadays; that the one major characteristic missing in organ recitals is passion — real sanguine, heartfelt passion. A major contributing factor to this problem is this bent for playing from music. It has a stultifying affect on the performer’s ability to empathically communicate her feelings for any of the pieces she is performing. Empathy is a powerful force. We all have it. We all experience it. When we “feel someone’s pain” we are empathising. Empathy is disseminated via raw, instinctive sensation and that doesn’t come from watching, or even listening blind, to someone who has her eyes glued to the ink on a page.

I remember when playing, reciting, singing, or doing anything from memory was referred to as doing it “by heart.” By heart — that pretty much says it all; and it only comes from having learnt a piece of music so thoroughly that it has become a part of your very being. That is when you truly know a piece. And it is that which makes the difference when listening comparatively to Hillary Hahn play a Bach solo Partita or Sonata on the violin, or Imogene Cooper play a Bach Prelude & Fugue from the WTC on piano from memory, to listening to Ann Elise Smoot drone on in the “Passacaglia & Fugue in c” on the organ. The other two have made that music their own. It’s part of them, as natural as each breath they take. The last thing Hahn or Cooper need is the music in front of them. It quite literally gets in the way.
When the late great Virgil Fox played a recital it was from memory, all of it. Without the music in front of him he was free to interpret a piece fully with great confidence without dropping notes caused by cumbersome page turning, assisted or not, or worrying about losing his place if he happened to take his eyes away from the score. The result was the audience could fully experience the music because they weren’t obstructed by a wall of paper, or the distractions caused by the hazards of page turning. Notwithstanding, as great fun as it was to watch him play, an audience didn’t have to see him. They felt him, they felt him as someone totally immersed in the music, and that in turn immersed the audience in his music making — empathy.

And that is my point about the audience knowing; they instinctively know. Of course, if an audience can’t see the organist because he is in the choir loft, they can’t specifically tell that he is not playing from memory — by heart; but, they can certainly sense the lack of surety or confidence, and the lack of tension and continuity as a result from being dependent on the page.
Here’s another: So often I hear the organist say, “Well, for all intents and purposes I really have it memorised,” or “I really don’t need the music. I just have it there just to be sure.” This I find, is at best, just a little disingenuous. Using a crutch no matter how fluidly, is not the same as walking securely or confidently unaided. If you know it by heart, you know it by heart, pure and simple. If you have to have that score in front of you, you patently don’t know it. Oh, you may have the notes, and dynamics right, but it isn’t existentially realised. Moreover, if you still need the page, you do not fully comprehend the arch of the phrase, and ultimately, the arch of the whole piece: at least well enough to communicate it to the audience.

And here’s still another: Organists are at a disadvantage in so much as they have the added burden of memorising the instrument; i.e., the unique qualities of the stops on each instrument (particularly solo stops) and the layout of the console. It is here that we separate the grown-ups from the children. For the organist, getting to know an unfamiliar instrument is not an easy task. It’s not like another keyboard, string or wind instrument in which the primary concern in dealing with a strange instrument is adapting to the touch or the general “feel” and tone of it. For the organist it is those factors and much, much more.

The organist must also adapt to and memorise:
1) a strange console. For awhile there was a bit of standardisation with American console design as perfected by E. M. Skinner in the early 20th Century; but, much of that has gone the wayside. Organ companies today are again including 19th Century French semicircle and 17th & 18th Century German tracker configurations in their design schemes. For an organist getting a feel for the console (especially if she likes to make frequent stop changes manually) requires almost as much practise as the music itself — in many cases more. the layout of the stops must be memorised so that she knows exactly where that Nazard 2⅔’ is, because she may only have a split second to reach over and draw it, or flip it, or press it. (The great American organist Lynwood Farnam used to require his students be able to pick up a pencil that had been placed at one end of a keyboard and place it at the other end whilst in the middle of a Bach fugue without dropping any notes.) In addition to the stops themselves, there are the pistons and their corresponding toe studs which allow the organist to preset any number of combinations so that major changes in tonal colour and dynamics can be affected instantly. Again it’s a matter of knowing virtually instinctively where that particular preset button is; because, in many cases she doesn’t have time to think about or look to where it is, and hitting the wrong one could easily spell disaster; she simply has to “feel” it; and that requires complete memorisation of the console.

2) the organ’s tonal scheme. This includes learning and adapting to the individual sound (voicing) of each stop alone and in their relationship to each other in combination. Again each organ can be radically different from the next, even within the same builder. On one organ an oboe stop will be very imitative of the orchestral instrument on another it can sound like a small trumpet stop; on one organ the pedal 16′ Bourdon will be very soft with the fundamental pitch dominant, on another that same named stop will have very little fundamental and strong octave overtone which makes a much louder 8′ foot sounding stop. These aspects and a myriad of others are what the organist has to remember as he adapts to each instrument. Often an organist (if he has any integrity as a recitalist) will have to radically change the combination of stops used for a particular piece from one organ to another because the tonal designs can be so completely different.

For instance, how does one get a French Romantic sound on an organ of primarily German Baroque design, or the converse? If an organist doesn’t know that organ inside and out it will be reflected in a complete lack of colour and dynamism in his performance.

Granted that’s a lot to remember above and beyond the printed page. Notwithstanding, the fact that any one or all of these items can make convincing excuses doesn’t alter the reality that they are still excuses, not reasons, for not playing from memory. It’s all part of the challenge of being an organist. When an organist has memorised the instrument and the music so that it is all second nature to him (I know, I know I promised to alternate, but I’m getting sick this overly PC crap) there isn’t a solo recitalist, except for possibly a singer, who can electrify an audience as an organist who is in total command of his instrument. Observe any of the videos on Youtube of Virgil Fox or Paul Jacobs and you’ll see what I mean. It’s rare performers such as they who prove that the organist can be the greatest of musicians and the organ the undisputed “King of Instruments.”

Thierry Escaich at Boston AGO 2014

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.

Three Rising Stars, #3: Nicholas Capozzoli

Nicholas Capozzoli represented Region III in this 3-in-1 recital. Also eschewing Bach, Mr. Capozzoli began with the beginning “Moderato” of the Symphonie Romane, Op. 73 of Charles Marie Widor (1844-1937). Based of the Gregorian Chant “Haec dies” the piece has a strangely indeterminate character, neither modal (as say Vaughan Williams) or traditionally tonal, one doesn’t get a feeling of direction. This is not the Widor of Symphony’s 4, 5 and 6. It is, at the risk of adding extra musical ideas, much more introspective music. It is Widor at what could be considered to be his most experimental. This not the kind of piece with which one begins a recital. I realise this was an audience of other organists; notwithstanding, it was still an audience, and the last thing you want to do is start off with a confusing, amorphously introspective piece like the first movement to Widor’s last Symphony. Mr. Capozzoli could have taken a hint from his predecessors as to what kind of piece with which you should begin a programme; that is, play something dynamic, something that will engage the audience. It doesn’t necessarily have to be familiar; it just has to be interesting, compelling, a piece of music that tells the audience that you are excited to play for them, and that they will be equally excited to continue listening. In any event, the Widor was played very faithfully, in so far as Mr. Capozzoli followed the M. Widor’s dynamics and bare-bones registrations without imagination, contributing the bromidic effect of the work.

Next came the “Intermezzo,” which serves as the scherzo movement to a Symphonie pour Orgue in b, Op.5 by the French Belle Epoch composer Augustin Barié (1883-1915). Barié studied composition at the National Institute for the Blind under Louis Vierne, who was only thirteen years his senior; but, had evidently made a considerable impact on Barié. Moreover, considering that Barié was only twenty-four when he wrote the his Op.5, the influence is not only understandable, but, as far as I’m concerned, a good thing. The “Intermezzo” could have very well been excerpted from a Vierne symphony. It puts him squarely into the lineage of the Franck school. Mr. Capozzoli followed M. Barié’s registrations and dynamics quite faithfully. But, he could have gone a bit further in using his imagination beyond trying to duplicate the registration called out in the score. Also, Mr. Capozzoli could have articulated the staccatos more distinctly; that would have given the melody a little more definition. Otherwise it was a perfectly adequate performance; i. e.; the type of playing indicative of most organ recitals. Regarding programming again, this would have normally been a perfectly fine choice for a second piece, notwithstanding its nebulous thematic material, if Mr. Capozzoli had elected to to open with something more dynamic than the Widor.

As cited above, Mr. Capozzoli regrettably had to forego the Te Deum by the brilliant in every way Jeanne Demessieux (1921-1968) and most unfortunately “La Vallée du Béhorléguy, au matin” from a suite entitled Paysages Euskariens by Joseph-Ermend Bonnal (1880-1944) another student of the Franck School who studied with Vierne and Tournemire, succeeding the latter at St. Clothilde. Instead, the decision was to go ahead with the exceedingly noisome Évocation II by Thierry Escaich (b. 1965), which although very loud (hence its use as a finale) is nothing less than dreck. Lots of crashing dissonances and a lot of jumping around different manuals over an ostinato bass with no sense of continuity or thematic development. It’s precisely the kind of bewilderingly appalling stuff that befouls so much of contemporary organ music, and is another reason the concert going public (and a lot of organists) shun organ recitals.

I’m always in favour of doing unfamiliar works on a concert programme: whether it’s an orchestra, chamber music, solo instrument, it’s always good to hear something beyond the tried and true. Notwithstanding, there’s a point of diminishing returns. Mr. Capozzoli, or whoever assisted him in his programming decisions, not only went past that point but fell off the cliff. Mr. Capozzoli needs some one who knows what they’re doing, to help him understand how the good programming of a recital works, whether it’s for the general public or one’s peers. People need something, somewhere to which they can relate. And then one must learn to perform those works, whether familiar or obscure, in a manner that reaches beyond the basic notes, dynamics and registrations and make those pieces, at the very least compelling.

Mr. Capozzoli, if you wish to be a concert organist (and this goes for Ms. Mcpherson earlier) don’t be typical.

Three AGO Rising Stars, #2: Ryan Kennedy

Region II was represented by an enterprising and vigorous Ryan Kennedy who decided to eschew Bach in favour of some very virtuosic, even delightful, yet substantial music. Mr. Kennedy got us off to a roaring start with the “Toccata” from Louis Vierne’s (1870-1937) 24 Pièces de Fantasie, 2me Suite, Op. 53. What impressed me initially was the clarity of playing, notwithstanding the sizeable registration. What I also found refreshing was that he understood that he was not playing a Cavaille-Cole organ at Notre Dame but on a big fat Skinner-plus in an American church, and therefore was smart enough to use Vierne’s registrations merely as a guide, not to be taken too literally. His rhythmic drive gave the piece the momentum it needed to get us off to an impellent beginning.

Then he quite cleverly switched gears on us by playing a delightful arrangement by fellow Juilliard grad Raymond Nagem of the Prokofiev (1891-1953) Music for Children Op.65. Here Mr. Kennedy got to show off some of the intriguing solo sounds of which the organ is infinitely capable. This wasn’t flashy stuff; but, it was music of divers, yet elegant variety. This clever arrangement for organ of explicitly didactic piano pieces (in the vein of Bartok’s Mikrokosmos) could serve very well for the young organ student in understanding the amaranthine possibilities at his or her disposal. Moreover, as bit of programming ingenuity these worked very nicely as a transition to the more angular and virtuosic Olivier Messsiaen (1908-1992) works to follow.

Mr. Kennedy played two excerpts from Messiaen’s nine movement suite La Nativité du Seigneur. The first, “Les enfants de Dieu” is trickier than it might seem. The tempo for this piece has to be just right; if it’s too fast the crescendo doesn’t have time enough to give the listener the chance to savour the rich, dense harmonies of those parallel chords; too slow and it loses steam by the time you get to the climax. Then there is a long gradual decrescendo from a mezzo-forte to pianississimo. All I can say is Mr. Kennedy was right on spot for the whole movement. The tempo and seamlessness of the crescendo to that crashing chord was stirring to say the least; but for me, it was the long slow, almost haunting, voyage to an an almost imperceptible causatum that really showed ability to the reveal essence of the piece. To be able to capture the mystery behind Messiaen’s mystical vision of “God’s Children” is no easy feat. Of course having a an organ like Old South Church helps — but, one must have the imagination to go beyond what may be called out in the score, ultimately, to achieve the goal.

So, it was with the second selection: “Dieu parmi nous” (“God among us”). This is the ninth and crowning movement to Messiaen’s suite and its most famous and infamous (for its difficulty). Mr. Kennedy gave a stunning performance that was easily one of the best I’ve heard for its rhythmic precision and sense of continuity. My only quibble is at the very end, the balance between hands feet was off and could have used a little more “meat” in the manuals. The pedal division on this organ be overwhelming (a rarity) and can almost completely bury the manuals if one isn’t careful. But, as I said, I quibble. This was a truly exciting recital — PLAYED ENTIRELY FROM MEMORY — thank you. Which, as far as I’m concerned, explains a lot. Since Mr. Ryan was Region II’s winner I can only presume he is a student of Paul Jacobs. Which also explains a lot. Nice work.