CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


From the 2011 ARD Competition, Day 7

Among all musicians, I envy organists the most. There is nothing I would rather be able to do (without putting the necessary effort into it, of course) than play Bach’s Passacaglia flawlessly, or pretty much any Prelude & Fugue set. Or the Toccatas and Chorale Preludes. As a wee lad, I wanted to become an organist because the instrument fascinated me more than any other… until my piano teacher took me to her church job one day, opened the organ, and flipped the switch to turn it on: The realization that the organ, the instrument of Bach, needed electricity, so shattered my idea of the instrument, somehow infringed upon the ‘purity’ of it, that my organist-zeal suffered lasting damage and kept me from pursuing the dream in unison with lacking talent and excess laziness.

Still, the organ fascinates me, and particularly Bach on the organ in any and all forms. There is scarcely a cycle of Bach’s complete organ works that I can resist (favorites are, in no particular order, (Walcha II, M.C.Alain II, Koopman II), and for this reason the ARD Competition’s inclusion of the organ for the first time in over a decade exuded special appeal to me. I missed the first round, but at least the first half of the first part of the semi-final fit into the schedule.

On the 1999 Kuhn organ of the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich’s Grand Concert Hall, four organists played in the morning-session of this first part of the semi final (the other part would be performed on the baroque organ of the Ottobeuren basilica)—each a work by Bach and the mandatory ARD commissioned composition by Naji Hakim, “Arabesques pour orgue”.

First up was Johannes Lang (Germany) with the Prelude & Fugue in e-minor, BWV 548, in full and brawny sound of the modern instrument, but with one set of registration throughout and—also ‘authentic’—no use of the heel on the pedals. His Prelude was mellifluous rather than rigorous, more sweeping than compelling, gorgeous if not outright astonishing. Clear throughout the Fugue, Lang was meticulous, even immaculate up until near the end when a fatigued finger slipped. The first outing of the Hakim “Arabesques” might have aroused a riotously frivolous response from a less stiff and tight audience; the work is, in short, a hoot. Any piece of music that makes me grin, smile, seat-dance, and laugh in a concert setting has already won my heart… and the rollicking romp that Hakim presents does all that.

Hakim’s preface is so telling, it deserves being quoted in full: “Song and dance are at the heart of this suite for organ, which reflects the overlapping influences of jazz and Mediterranean folk music. The six movements—Prélude, Pastorale, Libanaise, Arabesque, Litanie, Rondeau—are characterized by ornamental melodies, modal harmonies, irregular meter and an expressive quality inspired by joy.”

Joy, indeed! The whole work is drenched with joy; an improvisatory thing dashed off in a moment of exuberance and written down (or so it sounds), in parts hurdy-gurdy in Brighton, baseball stadium, clown-with-big-red-nose, Woody Allen humor, Haydn, playful like an unwritten score for “Zelda, the Arabian Princess Edition” and the like. It’s impossible to sit still during the thing, and Johannes Lang (even though we couldn’t know that at that point) did it justice.

Dominik Bernhard (Germany) took Arabesques slightly more seriously, to the first five movement’s detriment, I found… too dour to create a lighthearted mood… not attacka into the Rondeau but with little artful pauses that added something to that long last movement. This seriousness, which had impeded Hakim, worked well in the Fugue of the g-minor Fantasia & Fugue BWV 542. Although not terribly different from Lang in brawny, unchanging registration or demeanor, he was the nuanced opposite: rigorous rather than mellifluous, compelling more than sweeping in the Prelude; structured like clockwork and eventually transfixing in the Fugue.

After a short break followed two of the three remaining female organists: Anna-Victoria Baltrusch (Germany) first, then Angela Metzger (also Germany). (The third remaining female, Anna Pikulska, Poland, is also the only organist left from a non-German speaking country, but studies in Germany.) With the Fantasia & Fugue BWV 542 she scored on steady and delicious tension in the Fantasia, more imaginative registration than Bernhard, colorful playing but perhaps a touch stolid. The Fugue revealed impressive footwork but had less of the powerful-through-rigor element Bernhard had brought to it. Her “Arabesques” interpretation split opinions to my left and right. “The only interpretation that didn’t sound banal and boring” was the sentiment on my left; “the lady has as much humor as Lady Macbeth on an off-night”, on my right. I agree with the latter: It wasn’t slipshod exactly… indeed it was impressively fast throughout, with great technique on proud display. But it lacked that simple and coy wit, sounded like an automaton racing through the stuff with more grim determination than a smile and wiggling rear. The penultimate Arabesque-movement was Messiaenififed, which is to say that Mlle. Baltrusch knows how to distinctly color a piece… just not in the way I’d want to hear it colored. This is music for dancing Muppets, but buy when it’s whirled through like here, they’d never get into the grove. Articulation amazing, interpretation lacking… unless the attempt was to deliberately iron out all the highs and lows of joviality, to play it ‘against character’… in which case the aim was nobler than the result.

Angela Metzger is made of different, spunkier stuff: Her Toccata, Adagio & Fugue in C-major, BWV 564 was an allegory on the joy in athleticism… the joy of movement, palpable at all times, and perhaps spiced with a dash of (very becoming, enchanting) narcissism, with the long pedal-only part like a classical foot-cadenza. She tackled the Hakim likewise, with speeds rivaling those of her predecessor (maybe even too fast in the c = 144 Libanaise, I thought) but with interpretation to spare. The last movement had exactly the head-bopping country fair flair and lilt it needed.

Only one element was missing here, as everywhere else, and that was a little more courageous fantasy in the registration of the Bach: Is intimidation by a jury headed by Sir Simon Preston at work here, or is that generation of organists already so molded into one uniform style of registration in Bach, that they have developed a “that’s-how-it-is-done” mindset they don’t wish to break out of?

It was with difficulty that I tore myself away from the organ semi-final’s afternoon session… alas the oboe semi-final waited at the Herkulessaal with six renditions of Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in C, K.314 (also known as the Flute Concerto No. 2 in D Major), and six interpretations of “Gyfu” (gift),  the commissioned work by Liza Lim, an Australian composer at the University of Huddersfield. Not that repetition is a particular draw, especially when Bach is the alternative. But the Munich Chamber Orchestra (MKO) traditionally accompanies the semi-finalists and their enthusiasm and professionalism is the annual highlight of the competition; so much so that it would do them injustice to stay away.

In retrospect that might not have been the wisest decision. Who doesn’t love Mozart, and who doesn’t wish he’d just go away after hearing the same concerto three times in a row, in perfectly lovely but ultimately bland performances?! Miriam Olga Pastor Burgos (Spain) played first and charmed with a pretty chamber-like delicate tone in that concerto and lean lines, refreshingly unsentimental in the Adagio (soothing, not lulling) but in the first movement she was so much at the front of the beat that it sounded hectic throughout. Gyfu didn’t become music at all in her hands, although I should think the blame lies mostly with the composer of this awfully convoluted, pretentious work with its fancy Old-English rune as a title and yet Arabic ingredients; full of quarter tones and multiphonics that neither look (nor sound) like they are actually repeatable feats. An oboist who didn’t make it as far as the semi-final but had studied the piece, crinkled her little nose at the mention of it and said half apologetically, half innocent-disapprovingly: “Hmmmmm… it’s not music…”

The performance of Marc Lachat (France)—didn’t suggest it was, either; though there is plenty lyrical ‘Arabic’ sentiment in it to make for a potentially enchanting core (or side-show) of a willfully modern piece. At least Lachat got a little closer to music in his attempt. His Mozart wasn’t that much better than the just-heard one; the tone with a little more weight, the interpretation a little more on the lyrical side, beautiful but not mawkish. His tone was more condensed, as if more energy where packed into the same limited space but the quality of his tone deteriorated notably by the third movement.

Ivan Podyomov (Russia) played the first Mozart Concerto movement as if he was a man among boys (or girls). There was a considerable qualitative difference, more dynamic variance, more maturity, greater differentiation from note to note, and all in a plaintive-reedy sound that brought character to the oboe that had previously been missing. His cadenzas were shorter, better (almost the same thing), which made the experience most rewarding even when the other two movements did not stand out quite as much. In Gyfu he was faster than his colleagues, with less emphasis on every quarter tone but instead on accentuated bends, generally longer lines and actual music. The nuance he had brought to Mozart was applied here, too, and found beauty in unexpected places. Of the three oboists before the break, it by far the most successful attempt of milking something appreciable from Gyfu.

With the same Mozart-ordeal ahead of me one more time (Gyfu, at ten minutes and with completely different interpretations every time was much easier to bear, even as I didn’t like the piece) , I fled the scene prematurely. That had me miss, I was told, Philippe Tondre, who apparently breathed excitement back into the Mozart with his completely different tone (due to a different instrument?), despite daring and long-winded cadenzas, which one is bound to hold against the musician after repeat hearings of that concerto. And of “Gyfu” he was said to have made so much musical sense that even I might have revised my opinion of the work—with even the multiphonics attaining a sensical architectural character. Well, I shall hear him in the Finals on Tuesday.