Thursday, June 13, 2024

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An old organ and older music make a good match: Berkshire Bach presents German organ music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

To have to listen to an organ concert while doing nothing might seem an exercise in boredom, particularly since there is often not much to see. But on this occasion, not only was the music dramatic and expressive, but the performer was clearly visible, especially to those sitting on the sides who could clearly see all the action.

Who shows up to hear a concert of old German organ music in Housatonic in the middle of a mild, sunny Saturday afternoon in February? More than 150 music lovers, followers of the Berkshire Bach Society, and the American Guild of Organists’ local chapter, that’s who. They came to hear a 120-year-old organ, one more modest in size than the mighty Roosevelt organ of Great Barrington’s Congregational Church. The latter has more than 3,400 pipes in 61 voices; Johnson & Sons’ instrument in Housatonic has only about 723 pipes in 13 voices. Furthermore, the Roosevelt organ was the first in the country to use electricity to transmit the keystroke to the pipe, while the Johnsons’ instrument, though a dozen years newer, has the (very) old system by which each key is attached to metal rods (called “trackers”) which pull a disc from the bottom the pipe, allowing pressured air to whoosh through, sounding the note. This is like the difference between an electric car and a bicycle. Variety of timbre in organs is obtained by mixing voices (and pipes) together; in the older system the more pipes being opened, the more physical effort is needed. So why did the Johnsons stick to this antiquated system? Perhaps to save money? Or perhaps it was because they preferred the musical result.

That distinction may not be the reason the audience showed up; clearly they were music-lovers who were eager to discover the music that Bach studied while he was learning his trade as a church organist and composer. The other composers on this program were up to half a century older, and Bach, the eager student, heard them all, sometimes walking half-way across Germany to meet and listen to them. They transmitted to him the techniques and forms of their tradition, including the elements and spirit of the Lutheran musical service, each one adding something of his own. Bach of course absorbed it all and made his own mighty contributions to that tradition. The audience had an excellent guide to this musicological background in the form of Bach-scholar George Stauffer, who introduced the program and many of the individual compositions in a way that sharpened the audience’s ears to the differences in personality and form behind each work.

But talking about music is like painting food: You can see what it looks like but not how it tastes. The culinary side of the afternoon was served up by organist Renée Anne Louprette, and she was the one to demonstrate why the Johnson organ was such a satisfying vehicle for 300-plus-year-old music. On a more modern instrument, the technology can provide a rich flow of sound that can feel like a plush, wall-to-wall carpet: The keys move almost effortlessly, and the rich sound flows on and on. An important element of older music, however, is articulation, the small gaps in the sound that show where one idea ends and the next one begins. Our speech is full of articulation, sometimes provided by consonants and sometimes by the need of the speaker to take a breath. They help us understand the grammar and emotional sense of the discourse. When a tracker key is depressed, there is a consonant-like noise—called “chiff”—as the air suddenly rushes into the pipe. This corresponds to the percussive sound of a guitar string when first plucked, but while the guitar note dies away, the organ note continues steadily on. Having that “chiff” adds rhythmic life, and gives the player an extra tool to interpret the structure of the music, to divide the flow of notes into words and phrases—in other words, to make it articulate.

Ms. Louprette showed fine expertise in the capabilities of historical instruments, and she added expressive and interpretive tools by using subtly varied rhythms, by not playing all the notes perfectly evenly (a technique know in the day as “inégale”), and varying the spaces between the notes to increase the eloquence of the articulation, like an actor reciting a Shakespearean monologue. Another benefit of the smaller sized instrument is that the individual ranks (voices) have more distinct personalities, as in a chamber choir where you can pick out the individual voices. This more vivid coloring greatly helps to clarify the often complex textures of baroque counterpoint. The result of all this was a performance that exceeded my expectations, and, judging from their enthusiastic response, I’d say those of the audience as well.

Organ concerts have gone out of favor, probably because those who have listened to the instrument during church services may consider it a provider of background music for entrances, exits, and passing the plate. To have to listen while doing nothing might seem an exercise in boredom, particularly since there is often not much to see. But on this occasion, not only was the music dramatic and expressive, but the performer was clearly visible, especially to those sitting on the sides who could clearly see all the action. There is a lot of exciting activity to observe, not only of the hands and arms moving along the two keyboards (the Roosevelt organ has four keyboards, but they are way up in the balcony behind the audience, out of sight) or reaching out to push or pull the stops (often with a pleasant thud), but there is also the activity of the legs and feet dancing around on the pedal board. In most cases this is particularly hard to see, but for this program the presenters had the wonderful idea of training a camera on the pedals and projecting the image onto a large screen next to the organ. Thus what can be musically the most exciting moment in a virtuoso showpiece like Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C, which concluded the program, became a visual spectacle to match.

The musical forms represented on the program offered a survey of both sacred and secular organ music of the period. Bookending the program were preludes and fugues, abstract musical forms that challenged and showed off the performers’ as well as the composers’ skills. These included works by Bruhns, Reincken, and Bach. One example was Reincken’s Fugue in G minor. Organists are known for their ability to improvise, even in forms as complex and intellectual as the fugue. Reincken was famous for his ability to spin out preludes at great length and believed that it was a dying art-form until he had a chance to hear Bach carrying on the tradition. This fugue has a somewhat loose, improvisatory feel with a flurry of repeated notes that keep it rushing forward. To hear how Reincken can go on (and on, and on) check out his prelude on the chorale “An Wasserflüssen Babylon,” which clocks in at about 18 minutes.

In between the abstract works were the settings of chorales (Choralbearbeitungen), German hymns that would have been familiar to audiences of the time. (Veteran Bach lovers of today would have also recognized the three featured tunes.) One such work was the “partita” or set of variations on “Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig” by Georg Böhm, who was probably Bach’s mentor and later friend. As the only work on the program played without pedals, the tune passes through the prism of the composer’s imagination and refracts it into eight different images, from meditative to assertive to elegiac, mirroring the words that speak of the fleeting and futile nature of life on earth, in contrast to what comes afterwards.

Buxtehude and Bach were brought into direct confrontation in their settings of the same tune, “Komm, heiliger Geist” (Come, holy spirit). Where the older composer provides a gracefully ornamented version of the melody in the treble, accompanied by sedate figures, Bach drops it unadorned into the pedals, allowing the hands to chase each other in whirling arpeggios that evoke the image of the holy spirit descending as a mighty wind, blowing away petty earthly concerns. Despite the turbulence in the upper atmosphere, the phrases of the tune in the bass keep the music securely bound down to the earth. The other Bach chorale setting was of “An Wasserflüssen Babylon,” a beautiful version with the hymn melody ornamented just enough to transform it into a lyrical, spiritually uplifting song. The performer took a tempo so slow that it might have become soporific had it not been for the subtle articulations and smoothly connected harmonies that provided shape and purpose to this meditation on the hymn.

Ms. Louprette used the bookends of the program, preludes (with fugues) by Bruhns and Bach, to certify not only her own virtuosity (undoubtedly the intention of the composers) but also that of the organ, which was fully up to the demands of bright, extroverted display. Professor Stauffer recounted that when Bach was brought in, as expert consultant, to test a new organ, he would pull out all the stops and say “Let’s see what kind of lungs this instrument has.” Despite its modest size and old-fashioned design, the Johnson & Sons model 805 had lungs that were fully up to the demands of these splendid works.

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