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Recital Review Print

Robert Parkins Stirs Audience with Romantic German Organ Sonatas

March 30, 2008 - Durham, NC:

To hear a recital on any of the Duke Chapel organs is to experience the majesty and mysticism of these grand and versatile instruments. The concert this Sunday was limited to the grand 1976 Flentrop. The artist was Robert Parkins, University Organist and a Professor of the Practice of Music at Duke University. His recitals are always varied, focused, instructive and a great pleasure. He performed three German sonatas.

First on the program was Sonata in D Minor, the last of Felix Mendelssohn’s set of 6 organ sonatas published in 1845 as Op. 65. The first movement is a chorale harmonization of the German Lutheran hymn Vater unser in Himmelreich (“Our Father, who art in heaven”) which is followed by four variations on the hymn tune, each more complex and more powerful. The second movement is a fugue based on the opening phrase of the chorale. It employs a variety of fugal styles and techniques. The third movement is mostly a quiet Andante, sans rousing finale.

Mendelssohn, in addition to being a prolific and outstanding composer, also is remembered for his role in restoring the music of J.S. Bach to public awareness, his conducting and leading the Gewandhaus Orchestra to world prominence, and for his significant role in returning organ music to prominence after years of decline following the death of Bach.

Many years ago, when I was in college, I used to hang out with a student who was learning the organ sonatas of Paul Hindemith. I loved to sit in the organ loft while she was practicing and let the strange harmonies and striking melodies carry me to new and exotic places. Hindemith wrote in a unique style that was tonal but not diatonic. He used all 12 tones freely, but not like Schoenberg or Webern or Berg.

Parkins’ performance of Hindemith’s Sonata No. 2 brought back many old memories and though I know of no programmatic intentions in this music, it still seems to carry me off into a different world. The sonata was written in 1937 about a year before Hindemith left Germany, eventually settling in the United States and becoming a naturalized citizen in 1946. He then returned to Europe in 1952 and died in Frankfurt am Main in 1963.

The program closed with a work I have never heard before by a composer I do not recall having heard of either. Julius Reubke was a student of Franz Liszt and left only two major works, published posthumously, after his untimely death due to a respiratory illness at age 24. The work we heard was Sonata: The 94th Psalm. I found it, as Parkins asserts in his program notes, “a monumental organ sonata…an astonishing masterpiece.” Parkins’ performance was also superlative, requiring two assistants to pull stops and turn pages while his fingers and feet mastered the keys and the pedals. 

It is as the title implies an attempt (quite successful I must say) to put into programmatic music the words of the Psalmist. Psalm 94 is one of the angriest and most vengeful poems in the collection. Reubke assigns specific passages from the Psalm to different sections of the sonata beginning with the words “O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth, show thyself.” The music begins dark and brooding and become explicitly angry, employing dissonant harmonies and atonal melodies that would stand up beside Wagner’s (and Liszt’s) grand experiments to come.

There are moments of hopefulness and even gentleness in the Larghetto, pleading in the Adagio and hints of exaltation in the Allegro, but the overall tenor of the piece (and the Psalm) seems to be anger at God for allowing murder, iniquity and wickedness to go unpunished in the world. The textile art on themes of social justice by renowned artist Hollis Chatelain on display in Duke Chapel provided a perfect contemporary backdrop/companion for the Reubke sonata. How can anyone live in this world without knowing and feeling what the artists, the composer and the poet are saying?

This was the last of six organ recitals at Duke University Chapel for this season. You are encouraged to watch for next year’s series and to take advantage of these free concerts when perhaps, just perhaps, the renovated Æolian may be put through some test runs.