Sunday, September 20, 2009

French Organ Symphonies

Saturday night saw one of the best organ recitals ever to be heard in Greenwich, and that's saying quite a lot when you factor in the many stunning performances given here in recent years. This time it was Kevin Estes, Minister of Music and Organist at the First Presbyterian Church, at the console, which had been brought forward and angled for perfect viewing. What a treat for ear and eye!

Kevin holds that the rich repertory of the French masters, Widor, Vierne, and Guilmant, ought to be heard as originally intended, that is, as complete works and not as piecemeal "ear candy". Thus he began with Widor's "Symphonie VI" in its entirety. The opening Allegro with its fiery block chords announces the dramatic themes of the Symphony, which are restated in riff after riff of stunning keyboard and pedalboard virtuosity. The Adagio is, by contrast, quiet, pensive, and arioso in character, reprising the same themes but in an entirely new and more introspective way. Widor continues this pattern with the Intermezzo, a scherzo-like series of further variations on the overall themes, making them light and playful. The Cantabile sets off the oboe solo voice against a background of soft flutes, reminiscent of Franck's "Prelude, Fugue, and Variation" in its tonality. Lastly, the grand Finale with its joyfully triumphant dotted rhythms presents us with yet another toe-tapping reworking of the major theme, as well as an exemplar of technical brillance on the part of both composer and performer. Kevin's performance was, in a word, stunning.

What made it all the more so was the impeccable percussion duo of Alan Johnson and Meg Piper, who highlighted the more dramatic passages with tympani and cymbal accompaniment. One could practically feel Widor himself jumping up and down in his grave with excitement at the way they made the music leap from the page right into the listeners' souls.

We needed to regroup emotionally after this exhilarating experience, and Kevin kindly obliged us with Vierne's Andante from Symphonie I. This is the piece that sets the stage, as it were, for his famous Final, a staple of the concert repertory; as Kevin told us, Vierne had a reputation as a kind and generous teacher, and this fluid piece, giving no hint of the fireworks to follow, seems to exemplify those characteristics.

"I lied," Kevin told us by way of introduction to the final selection, Guilmant's "Sonata I". It is not, of course, a "symphony" like the previous works he had played for us. And yet...Guilmant himself arranged it in symphonic form for organ and orchestra, so perhaps it is the title itself that is misleading, and not Kevin.

The Introduction and Allegro provided another opportunity for Alan and Meg to make the music sizzle as though with an electrical charge. The scoring being Guilmant's own, we were treated to the piece in perhaps its purest form, with the sonorous drama of the percussion but without the superfluity of a full orchestra. For Kevin himself made the organ sound so much like an orchestra that to have had an additional assemblage of strings and woodwinds and reeds would have been seriously redundant.

The lyric Pastorale was in A-B-A form, beginning with a quieter fughetta-like theme followed by a quasi-chorale on the vox humana, and then back to the main subject. Our heart rates were given a chance to return to normal.

But not for long. The Final is one of the major glories of French romantic organ music, but is not often heard, unless, of course, you come to the First Presbyterian Church on Easter Sunday. It is a non-stop roller-coaster of cascading sound that grabs you by the ear from the first chord to the last, with a few glimpses of acoustical heaven in between. Once again, Meg and Alan used the composer's own transcriptions to add brilliance and bravura to the music. The notes had barely ended before the first bravos were being shouted, and the audience rose to its feet in a standing ovation.

Kevin's performance - and Alan and Meg's, too, of course - was flawless. He seemed almost nonchalant as he played this gorgeous music, in an awesome demonstration of what the Italians call "sprezzatura" - making the hugely difficult seem as easy as pie, and not even breaking a sweat in the process. Your scribe does not think it too much to place Kevin in the first rank of American organists, for last night he surely earned his place in that pantheon. His consummate musicianship and unparalleled virtuosity are rarely seen at the parish church level, and we in Greenwich are extraordinarily lucky to have him.


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