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NSO's Foray into Religious Music

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Bach, Selected Organ Works, P. Jacob
(JAV, 2004)
Johann Sebastian Bach, in Nicolas Slonimsky's memorable turn of phrase, is "the supreme arbiter and lawgiver of music." This week's program from the National Symphony Orchestra, heard at the second performance on Thursday night, a special schedule arranged out of respect for Yom Kippur on Friday, had Bach at its heart. The concert's excellent soloist in Poulenc's organ concerto, Paul Jacobs, played Bach's A minor prelude and fugue (BWV 543) as a sort of encore. Of course Jacobs offered technical polish, even in the fugue taken at a rolling pace, but more impressively he used registration changes to create a sense of structure, through tension and release, that brought out the fugue's climactic qualities. This is one of the best fugues by history's greatest composer of fugues, often used as the textbook example of the process, but one forgot the technical achievements and just heard it as music.

Bach's organ music inspired Francis Poulenc when, during the composition of his organ concerto in G minor, he made a life-changing pilgrimage to the shrine of the Black Virgin at Rocamadour. A commission that had begun in a decidedly secular vein, commissioned by the Princesse de Polignac, the notorious heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune, took on a quasi-religious character. The work rewards live listening, its unusual instrumentation of strings, organ, and timpani, made for the Polignac salon, offering many unusual sounds, like the stark timpani accompanying the organ in the introduction or the organ's accompaniment of a gentle viola solo towards the end. (Maurice Duruflé, who premiered the solo part, advised Poulenc on the organ registrations.) Although Poulenc eschews the sounds of boulevard chansons, except perhaps in the final Allegro, the harmony is lush and some of the organ parts quite devilish. The only drawback of the performance was in the overall alignment between organ and orchestra, not helped by the often whirling, imprecise beat of guest conductor Matthew Halls.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, NSO offers “Lobgesang,” but highlight is organist Paul Jacobs playing Bach (Washington Post, October 3)
Halls had more success with Mendelssohn's second symphony (B-flat major, op. 52), performed here for the first time by the NSO. Although not without its weaknesses, it is can be extremely dramatic -- our favorite recordings are conducted by Jan Willem de Vriend and Frieder Bernius -- and this performance was effective on some fronts and not on others. Halls seemed to rush through the three opening orchestral movements, with the ensemble not always together in the first movement, the second movement lilting but with the appearance of the Magnificat theme (stated in the symphony's first bar by the trombones) sometimes covered up, and the third movement too fast to take note of much at all. The Washington Chorus, seated in sections with the male parts in the middle, was present if not overpowering, with the soprano sound sometimes lacking in fortitude.

Most importantly, the soloists had the required power where it was needed, even placed as they were at the front of the chorus in the stands behind the orchestra. Twyla Robinson was off in terms of intonation and the tone strangely placed, but as the second soprano she was minimally exposed. Paul Appleby, taking the often thankless tenor part, brought a powerful instrument deployed with well-tuned accuracy and ardent tone, creating dramatic moments in the "Watchman" scene ("Hüter, ist die Nacht bald hin?"). This set up the dramatic climax of the piece, as soprano Tamara Wilson dispelled the night and turned the piece toward the major mode with blazing strength ("Die Nacht is vergangen!"). One of the new principal musicians -- William Gerlach on trumpet, with the former principal as associate principal -- acquitted himself well, although the sound in the oboes was not as assured. Both the form of the finale, somewhat like a Bach cantata, and the contrapuntal complexity of many of the choral movements are a tribute by Mendelssohn to his famous forebear in Leipzig, in a piece performed there for the anniversary of the Gutenberg printing press in 1840.

This concert repeats tonight (October 4, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The principal horn for the Mendelssohn was Laurel Ohlson, Associate Principal.