Lucid Culture


Richard Webb Plays Karg-Elert at St. Thomas Church, NYC 5/16/10

According to the Karg-Elert Archive (of which organist Richard Webb is a member), the German composer’s work is “a peak of late Romantic music.” They aren’t kidding. Sigfrid Karg-Elert remains well-known in the organ world but too little-known outside it. He was a colorful character: born into poverty, he began his career while still in his teens, playing in saloons in disguise so that his teachers at the conservatory wouldn’t discover his aptitude for “low art.” A contemporary of Schoenberg and Webern, he abandoned the avant garde and rededicated himself to the pursuit of melody. Highly acclaimed during his lifetime for his choral works, he was a virtuosic multi-instrumentalist, equally adept at wind and stringed instruments as at the keyboard. His favorite instrument for composing was a small French portable organ, similar to a harmonium: his lifelong goal, never realized, was to be a church organist. It’s about time somebody in New York decided to put on an all Karg-Elert program: on the venerable, smoky old Skinner organ at St. Thomas in midtown on Sunday evening, Webb passionately and expertly brought out every facet of the composer’s remarkably diverse work.

He began strikingly and dramatic with the insistence of the Preambulo, from the Music for Organ, Op. 145, with warmly melodic echoes of a Cesar Franck-style heroic anthem. Three of the Pastels, from his Twelve Pastels from the Lake of Constance made a balmy, atmospheric, almost minimalist contrast, long sheets of sustain casually woven together. The showstopper was the Funerale, Op. 75, No. 1, dedicated to the memory of his fellow composer Alexandre Guilmant. Plaintive sostenuto ambience gave way to the epic grandeur of ornate pedal passages, cannonball runs up the scale, stormy full-bore counterpoint and then a return to quiet poignancy. Webb closed with Aphorismus, Op. 86, No. 10, a frequently ferocious piece equally well known in piano literature, replete with drama and majesty. Here’s hoping another organist, or ensemble, will pick up and follow where Webb left off.

May 18, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

David Goodenough Plays Vierne’s First Symphony in New York, 4/13/08

Scottish organist David Goodenough had the good taste and imagination to play the great French composer Louis Vierne’s First Symphony in its entirety at St. Thomas Church Sunday evening. While its fiery introduction and rousing finale are standard performance pieces in the organ repertoire, it’s not every day that this fascinating work can be heard all the way through. In hindsight, this isn’t the same Vierne whose wife would leave him for his best friend, who lost family and students in World War I, wrote the scathing, wrathful Third and then equally scathing, wrathful Fifth Symphony (although there is some foreshadowing). The First Symphony contains none of the eerie, macabre, atmospheric sheets of noise that would be one of his signature devices for the rest of his career. Rather, it’s a boisterous, generally optimistic work, a prime example of late-period French Romanticism, something Cesar Franck – who taught Vierne a thing or two about it – would be proud of.

Goodenough began the famous intro a little fast (resist the pun, resist the pun), but the piece eventually worked itself out. Vierne has the pedal playing the central melody, ascending toward a resolution that never happens. Finally, after several permutations, it bursts into flame, one of only two places where any real anger comes out. It’s followed by a pretty if generically baroque fugue, an even gentler, quiet, equally pretty, pastorale and then the symphony’s piece de resistance, the allegro vivace which is a devious, defiant little dance on the flute and woodwind stops that ends with a cynical flourish. Goodenough absolutely nailed it, bringing out every bit of disobedient bounce. The andante that follows builds up to the warm, Mendelssohn-esque melodicism of the famous finale, the pedals once again making the church rattle all the way up to the big, predictable, chordal conclusion.

Despite all of Lucid Culture’s incessant attempts to popularize the organ repertoire, it looks like it’ll take a much more substantial PR campaign before the general public will be caught dead listening to this. That being said, adventurous listeners would be richly rewarded getting to know both the organist and the composer on the program tonight.

April 14, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Blaze of Glory: Oliver Brett at the Organ at St. Thomas Church, NYC 3/31/08

Westminster Cathedral organist Oliver Brett opened with Mendelssohn’s Third Organ Sonata. The first movement, allegro maestoso, is typically ebullient and boisterous, owing a considerable debt to Bach but adding classical dynamics typical of its era. Of Mendelssohn’s sonatas, it’s not the best – that would be the titanically powerful Fourth – but it’s comfortably invigorating. The second part is warm and quiet, frequently fugal, and Brett played it with impressive subtlety.

The next piece on the bill was Louis Vierne’s Third Symphony. Vierne was legally blind (he could only read music in very large type) and suffered greatly throughout his career as organist at Notre Dame before and after World War I. He lost several family members in the war and afterward had to play several American concert tours to raise money to rebuild the Notre Dame organ. Perhaps as a result, much of his work has an unrestrained wrath. In the third symphony, this counterintuitively doesn’t come to the forefront during the powerfully ominous, portentous opening movement or its scorching conclusion: it’s reserved for the quieter, more ambient middle sections. This was pretty revolutionary stuff when Vierne wrote it in 1911, predating Stravinsky and the Rites of Spring by a couple of years, something of a bridge between the romanticism of Widor and Franck and the strangely ominous modernism of Messiaen that followed. Yet Vierne didn’t receive much of a reaction, positive or negative. when it came out, testament to the fact that the organ repertoire has been pretty much been relegated to an enthusiastic but small subculture – despite our incessant attempts to change that!

With all its eerie dissonances and pedal melodies, this is an exceedingly difficult piece to play, and Brett handled the middle sections with aplomb, although he gave in to temptation and blazed throught the intro and outro at a breakneck pace that didn’t let the symphony’s signature pedal figure resonate with the power that it has when played at a slower tempo. Nonetheless, any opportunity to see this incredible piece of music is worth seeking out, especially played on such a powerful instrument in a space as sonically beautiful as this. To his credit, Brett plans to play a marathon of the complete organ works of Maurice Durufle later this year in the UK: here’s wishing him the very best.

April 2, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment