Saturday, March 15, 2008

Christ's Church Comes to Christ Church

Friday evening saw another in the fabulous Christ Church organ recital series. Saw, thanks to the modern technology that projected the action at the console onto a wide screen set up on the chancel steps, and of course heard, thanks to the artistry of Andrew Sheranian, organist and choirmaster at Christ’s Church in Rye.

As Andrew was quick to remind us, Christ’s Church is the grandparent church of Christ Church in Greenwich, back when our Town was largely in the hands of the Congregationalists. At the petition of a few local residents, the Horseneck Chapel was built in 1749, and the mission was serviced (as it were) by the Anglican minister of St. John’s Church in Stamford (itself originally a mission of Christ’s Church, Rye), who would ride over to attend to the spiritual needs of Greenwich residents after tending to those of his own flock. History does not record whether or not he was given a beach card in recognition of his ministrations on behalf of the Town.

The program opened with the spritely 9/8 Prelude and Fugue in C Major by Bach. An ascending C Major scale announces a deceptively simple opening to what quickly devolves into a rather complicated piece, as this theme interweaves with a sinuous counter-subject and the counterpoint of a descending subject played by the pedals. The fugue, which, as Andrew pointed out in his opening remarks, has an unusually short theme, continues the driving rhythm of the prelude. It then builds to a majestic close as the pedals finally enter, playing the subject at half-time (that’s half-speed to you football fans), and then holding on a sonorous pedal point until the climactic series of chords that take us into hitherto-uncharted tonalities before bringing us back safe and sound to the tonic (that’s the home key, for you gin drinkers).

Andrew played the piece pretty much as Bach himself would have done, setting his registration and then playing it straight through from beginning to end. The exception to this came at the end of the fugue, where Bach put in rests between the blocks of chords so that he (or more likely, an assistant) could tug out additional stops. In Bach’s day, one had to have well-developed upper body strength to haul out registration stops on tracker-action organs (everything connected by levers and sliders of wood), as opposed to today’s electro-pneumatic action, when a flick of your little finger will activate the 32-foot bombarde.

In a first, Andrew combined vocal and organ joint participation. Treble Sean Fallon of Rye sang alternate verses of the Magnificat (in Latin, of course), while Andrew played the others in Samuel Scheidt’s version on the Ninth Tone. This "tennis match", to borrow Andrew's term, was in fact the way the Magnificat used to be performed in the liturgy of the pre-Reformation church; the reformers did away with it because of their empasis on text - and what good is a performance in which you get to hear only half the text, they reasoned. Sean’s clear voice reminded us that even though the organ is the “king of instruments”, human vocal cords still produce the loveliest music in God’s creation.

The organ-voice interaction continued as Andrew got us all to stand and sing three German chorales, each followed by an embellished chorale prelude. Two were by Bach, "Schmuecke dich" and "Von Gott will ich nicht lassen," flanking a Romantic Brahms treatment of "O Welt, ich muss dich lassen" - one of his last works, and published only after his death.

The finale was Josef Rheinberger’s Organ Sonata XII in D-Flat Major, which, as Andrew reminded us, is one of the lushest of all the key signatures. Born in Liechtenstein in 1839, Rheinberger began his musical career as organist at the parish church in Vaduz at the age of seven. He died at the close of the Victorian age in 1901, and his music pretty much died with him. Andrew happens to be a fan of Rheinberger’s music, and his goal in presenting this piece was to gain more adherents to his cause.

The sonata opens with a sonorous "Phastasie", full of the "Sturm und Drang" of the Romantic movement in organ literature. The "Pastorale" offered a quieter, more meditative section, followed by the final “Introduction and Fugue”. Loud and boisterous, this section concludes with a reprise of the “Phantasie”, bringing the work to a cyclical close in typical Rheinberger fashion.

Your scribe must confess he was a bit disappointed with the Rheinberger sonata, which he had never heard in performance before (kudos to Andrew for that). The themes seemed unmemorable, unlike those in, say, the 8th Sonata, with its towering Introduction and Passacaglia. Many notes were played, with great technical artistry, but they left your scribe by and large unmoved. If Rheinberger’s reputation rested solely on this piece, it is possible he would be totally unremembered today.

Your scribe wishes he could wax more poetic about the Rheinberger work. And if he had a quibble with Andrew’s performance, it would be that the registration was somewhat unimaginative, consisting of a few alternating general piston combinations of sounds. “Been there, heard that” was your scribe’s reaction, as the same registrations recurred over and over. To be fair, Andrew probably had limited time to practice at Christ Church and explore all the gorgeous tonalities the organ has to offer, and of course we are all totally spoiled by the awesome artistry of James Kennerley, who seems to know intimately each and every stop of the organ and how to combine them in ways never before heard in Greenwich. If Andrew had spent as much time at the console here as James has, he undoubtedly would have varied the registration more; but of course he hasn’t, and so it is probably unfair to expect him to have done other than he did.

Let there be no doubt, nonetheless, that Andrew is a first-class musician who treated us to a first-class performance. His innovative introduction of audience participation was a welcome step forward in the series to date, and of course the presentation of the Scheidt Magnificat in conjunction with Sean Fallon was brilliant. Each time your scribe attends one of these Friday evening recitals, he comes away informed and enriched by the experience. Andrew Sheranian’s memorable performance was no exception to this pattern, and your scribe is glad and grateful that the grandparent church in our neighboring town lent us their talented organist to come to Greenwich last night.


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