Saturday, November 7, 2009

Review: Bálint Karosi

Nov. 6, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Richmond

Bálint Karosi, the Hungarian-born, Boston-based winner of the 2008 Johann Sebastian Bach Competition for organists, came to call with an unusual program, “The Evolution of the North-German Chorale Variation,” for an unusual instrument, the baroque-style Taylor & Boody organ installed in 1983 at Bethlehem Lutheran Church.

As its title suggests, this was a program of early music: All selections were from the 17th century except the concluding Partita on “Sei gegrüsset Jesu gütig,” BWV 678, of Bach. And three pieces constituting the first half of the program were based on a single hymn tune, “Es ist das Heil uns kommen her” (in the modern Lutheran hymnal, “Salvation Unto Us Has Come”).

This 15th-century German chorale proved to be a sturdy foundation for variations – 10 in all, in Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck’s Toccata in C major and two variations on the hymn and in an epic seven-part fantasy by Matthias Weckmann. The Weckmann draws on a wide range of voicings and colorations and boasts a great deal of contrapuntal activity. The tune’s solemnity and slowish tempo, however, did not vary, even in the most florid, virtuosic sections of the Weckmann.

Sustaining momentum at a strolling andante pace over 40 minutes was as big a challenge to the organist as playing the notes (lots of them in Weckmann’s most dense counterpoint) and exploiting the resources of this instrument. Karosi’s performances were deeply engaged but sounded careful, at times tentative.

He sounded more spontaneous in Georg Böhm’s more extroverted Partita on “Herr Jesu Christ dich zu uns wend" and in the Bach, the only piece on the program with true dance tempos. Even in these livelier pieces, though, Karosi sounded to be feeling his way through the mechanical and sonic capacities of an instrument that he was still getting to know.