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Duke University organist Robert Parkins played the last of a three-part recital series titled "J. S. Bach and His Contemporaries" with music by Bach, Handel, Domenico Scarlatti, Jean-François Dandrieu, Johann Ernst Eberlin, and an anonymous Spanish composer. Playing the 1976 Flentrop organ at the rear of Duke Chapel (where it replaced all but the narthex facade of the former Antiphonal and Echo divisions of the 1932 Aeolian organ), Parkins' musicianship was at the fore as he illustrated similarities and differences among music of these contemporaneous composers.
Hearkening back to 1985 and its celebrations of the tercentennial year of the births of Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti, the recital began with compositions by each composer. First was Bach's early Prelude and Fugue in C minor, with its solo pedal opening featuring the Flentrop's Bazuin 16' reed (the bass of which sounds more like a posaune/trombone than a fagott/bassoon the farther from the organ that one sits). The repeated chords are a sign of this music's being an early work, as are the fugue's forty bars of hands-only music (with their eight repetitions of the fugue's subject) before the pedal enters at the beginning of an extended coda full of non-Bachlike broken chords and Buxtehudian roulades. Parkins captured the youthful vigor and élan of this music, which may well be from the same time period as the more-famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565).
An organ concerto by George Frederic Handel followed: Opus 4, No. 5, in F. As was often the case with Handel's works, this one had several lives. Beginning as a recorder and harpsichord sonata, it became an organ concerto with strings and woodwinds, and then was arranged and published in 1738 as a concerto for solo organ. Parkins played this solo version, using one keyboard to represent the original organ solo parts and a second keyboard representing the orchestra/organ tutti passages. The Flentrop's superb flute sounds, with their winding set to imitate the not-always-steady pitches common to the organs that Handel played, highlighted the Larghetto and Allegro movements. The Alla Siciliana movement's ornamentation was a purely Baroque delight; the concluding Presto sparkled as only a Gigue can.
Domenico Scarlatti's sonatas are most frequently performed on harpsichord, not least by the deservedly-famous Ralph Kirkpatrick, who was one of Parkins' teachers. The matched-pair of Sonatas in C minor, K. 302 and 303 (L. 7 and 9, for those who follow the older Longo cataloging) brought an enviable clarity of touch as Parkins transferred his harpsichord technique to the organ. The K. 302 Andante featured the Flentrop's most liquescent flute sounds, while the K. 303 Allegro was played on a secondary principal chorus. It was delightful music, elegantly played.
Next came a spectacular performance of Dandrieu's Offertoire pour le Jour de Pâques (Offertory for Easter Day), a set of variations on the Easter hymn "O Filii et Filiae" ("O sons and daughters") – see the original 12 stanzas here. This was a singularly fine performance as well as a perfect marriage of music to instrument. Parkins used the organ's reed choruses along with the Cornet's pungent voices in this quintessentially French Baroque music. (The "Cornet" is not like the brass band's instrument. It is a "compound stop" of five different pitches; for example, when one plays a "C" key, five pitches are heard: that C, a second C an octave higher, the G above that, another C two octaves above the lowest one, and an E a major third above that highest C. A favorite French Baroque organ registration features dialogues between a Cornet stop and a reed stop called the Cromorne.) Only in Variation VI was the melody on the heavy side its accompanying voice, but this in no way detracted from Parkins' superb account of this work.
A Toccata and Fugue in E minor by Johann Ernst Eberlin followed. Known also for his choral music, Eberlin's keyboard works combine older compositional techniques with forward-looking harmonic language, as illustrated by this fugue. Again, the organ's flute sounds were the stars of the performance as Parkins revealed each note of the primarily three-voice texture of the Prelude in beautiful clarity.
Horizontal trumpet stops (clarines, or trompettes en chamade) were a feature of 18th-century Spanish organs, often used for royal occasions. An anonymous Spanish work in three short movements (Despacio, Grave, Muy aprisa), this piece's title is a direction for its usage: Entrada de clarines [ante de tocar canciones], or "Entrance on the clarines, before playing the hymns/songs." It began with an effective imitation of timpani by undulating low-pitched pedal sounds, soon joined by the Flentrop's own horizontal reed pipes. The quieter passages are in simple harmony, making their effects through echo passages. This lesser-known music showed how effective an alternative kind of musical style can be, even as it differs markedly from that of other cultures.
The recital closed as it began, with music of J.S. Bach. First came BWV 721, a chorale prelude on "Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott" ("Have mercy on me, Lord God"). Rare in Bach's works with its chorale melody written in unadorned half notes over a chordal structure of repeating eighth notes, some musicologists have labeled its authorship as questionable, while some performers have assumed that Bach himself would have added much ornamentation to the melody. Parkins chose a tempo which allowed the melody to sing without sounding funereal.
Bach's Prelude and Fugue in B minor (BWV 544) closed the program. Parkins registered it using the Flentrop's full sound, including a 16' (low octave) manual sound throughout. That approach is indeed a sound one, although it takes a fine instrument and acoustic to pull it off. The fugue subject is one of Bach's most linear in its construction and inventive in its melodic offerings, with a second counter-subject introduced two-thirds of the way through the work, as the pedal returns after a long manuals-only sequence. The pedal again dominates as the main fugue subject returns, stating its melody not once or twice, but three times in a harmonic sequence that spurs the music to its close. Parkins drove the fugue to its titanic conclusion, bringing the large audience to its feet in well-deserved acclaim.
This year's recital is the third segment of a trilogy related to organ music by Johann Sebastian Bach. "J. S. Bach and His Contemporaries" has featured works of Bach and contemporaneous composers from Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, and France.