Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Reviews: organ recitals

Bruce Stevens
March 14, University of Richmond

Bruce Stevens, who has been playing the Beckerath organ in the University of Richmond’s Cannon Memorial Chapel since his student days, and now, as organ instructor at the university, performs on the instrument regularly, played to its strengths and his own in a recital of German baroque and romantic repertory.

Stevens has spent years performing and recording the sonatas of Josef Rheinberger, the Liechtenstein-born composer whose organ works reflect the evolution of the classically inflected German romantic style as heard, largely in other media, from Mendelssohn to Brahms and (especially) Max Bruch.

In this recital, Stevens previewed the next installment of his recorded cycle, playing Rheinberger’s Sonata No. 13 in E flat major, Op. 161, dating from 1889. The piece shows a flowing, songful character through three movements, concluding somewhat more cerebrally, if not much less lyrically, in a fugue – rather like a serenade that ultimately develops second thoughts.

The organist’s fluent, orchestrally scaled reading of the Rheinberger made a persuasive case for the piece; but in the context of this program, it came across as mellowing-out music, following as it did one of the Johann Sebastian Bach’s most monumental and intense organ works, the Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV 546.

This is the kind of music the Beckerath was built to voice, and Stevens exploited that voice in a sharply focused reading whose power never lapsed into stridency.

He worked his way (and the audience’s) up to big Bach, opening the recital with works by two of the composers who most strongly influenced the young Bach – Dietrich Buxtehude’s Praeludium in F sharp minor and Georg Böhm’s Chorale Partita on “Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu und wend” (“Lord Jesus Christ, turn to us”) – followed by Bach’s Trio Sonata in G major, BWV 530.

All three sound decorously playful when heard alongside BWV 546 (as most any music would); Böhm’s partita projects the same tone and spirit as the colorful, quasi-rustic suites of Georg Philipp Telemann. Stevens’ performances were idiomatic and spirited.

* * *

Stephen Hamilton
March 11, St. James’s Episcopal Church

An entirely different spirit pervaded Stephen Hamilton’s performance on the Fisk organ of St. James’s Episcopal Church, devoted to “La Chemin de la Croix” (“The Stations of the Cross”)
by Marcel Dupré.

This massive cycle of 14 pieces, vividly illustrating the end of Jesus’ life, from condemnation through scourging and crucifixion to entombment, is cast as a musical “commentary” on Paul Claudel’s poem of the same name, and is customarily performed with readings of Claudel’s verses preceding each section.

In this recital, readers Harrison Clark, Hilary Streever and Julie Wade delivered the texts in French, with translations printed in a program book that also featured reproductions of expressionist paintings on the Stations of the Cross produced in the early 1960s by the British artist David O’Connell.

Hamilton, minister of music emeritus of New York’s Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity and a long-active touring recitalist, makes a specialty of the Dupré; he has played the piece more than 40 times across the country.

This performance of the cycle emphasized tonal color and fervid expression over technical finesse, confronting the listener with jolting sound images and dramatic pronouncements. It was a singular, more-than-musical experience.