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At St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Greenville, under the auspices of East Carolina Musical Arts Education Foundation, Ann Labounsky and her former pupil Andrew Scanlon presented an exciting major recital of Bach, Langlais, Clérambault, and Jongen, along with an improvisation by Labounsky. It is always effective to be able to compare and contrast a major teacher and one of her major students. In a sentence, it was mellow competence on the one hand and youthful excitement on the other.
Scanlon opened with a good Bach's G Minor Fantasy and Fugue (S.542), which began with a deafening little plein jeu against a huge singing pedal registration. The tempo was slow, but not slow enough for the room to clear at the turning points of the music, even though the playing was precise and clean throughout. Scanlon began the fugue lightly and maintained clarity to the end, without any détaché. There was a serious speed-up in the middle which left the performer nowhere to go to maintain a sense of increased excitement.
Scanlon was followed by Labounsky playing Louis-Nicolas Clérambault's Suite du Deuxième Ton. Historically the verses of this suite were performed in alternatim with verses of the Magnificat. In performance, Scanlon sang the alternate verses in Latin.
Giving a monkey a razor blade does not make him a brain surgeon; giving a person a hand-held microphone does not necessarily give them anything worthwhile to say. The handheld mike emboldens so many people to feel like they have to say "just a few words," invariably terminating with, "without further ado." I heard both these phrases twice. When a churchful of people have come out expressly to hear music, why must there be off the cuff yammering? And how many different people have to tell an audience that they are welcome in spite of the bad weather? (It was raining a little.)
Without further ado, just a few words about the Clérambault. All the movements were played at very moderate tempos. The Plein Jeu was of great majesty. The Duo was played on the reeds (which were nicely in tune). Although they sounded like the Cromorne or Hautbois and not the Trompette, they filled the room. The Trio was very full and smooth, with calm and effortless playing. The Bass de Cromorne had a sprightly, bouncy feel. Labounsky seemed totally at home in this most stylized early eighteenth-century music. The Flûtes was at a perfect tempo, with the wonderful rolling quality very pronounced. Labounsky and the Fisk showed Clérambault at his best in both the Flûtes and the following Récit de Nazard. The Caprice sur les grands Jeux was indeed grand, but too loud; I don't even play my iPod or my CD player this loud! The entire Clérambault suite was very satisfying; I would like to hear more of Clérambault - and Couperin and de Grigny and the rest of that crowd on the St. Paul's Fisk, especially by performers of this caliber.
Labounsky, student and biographer of Jean Langlais, continued at the keyboard with his Arabesque sur les flutes from the Suite Français and the Dialogue sur les mixtures from the Suite Brève. The Arabesque did have lines that interwove like cats running up and down the keyboard, over a strong pedal point. The Dialogue was presented with much verve. It was effective programming to have both Clérambault and Langlais on this instrument; French organ music of both periods is practically impossible to realize without the highly idiomatic resources of an instrument of this design.
As a strange little interlude, Labounsky performed the "big" and the "little" Dies sind die heiligen zehn Gebot" from Bach's Clavierübung III. The "big" S.679 flowed out and filled the room with its smooth and beautiful familiarity. The fat, smooth registration and very slow tempo of the "little" S.680 was devoid of any interest. This humorous ditty cries out for a buzzy reed stop of the rankett variety, along with a brisk tempo and lots of articulation.
A featured piece for the concert was the Double Fantasie of Langlais, performed by Labounsky and Scanlon together on the bench. They play well together, even though there were several moments of "Elbows out!" as they sought their respective spaces on the keyboard. In the last part of the Double Fantasia the sound, though brilliant, was not painful, blurred, or distorted.
Scanlon introduced the Sonata Eroïca by Joseph Jongen as "the best piece." Perhaps not the best composition, but certainly Scanlon's best playing of the evening, with a strong familiarity with the music. Scanlon mentioned that he had first worked this piece up in grad school. Much good playing comes from the halcyon days of school, when people feel so pushed and yet actually have enough time to practice adequately. The introduction was massive; the double pedaling was impressive.
Labounsky's Improvisation on submitted themes: the hymn-tune Slane and the plainsong sequence Lauda Sion salvatorem for Corpus Christi, was too obscure for me to spot the themes very often. It partook of the typical French idiomatic improvisational style, in which the performer finds a theme seemingly solid in their repertoire that goes more or less with the submitted theme. That pairing is played once, then the performer goes off at length on the repertoire theme. The improvisation was solidly played, with a clean, flawless self-assurance, but the themes were not at all obvious.
The extensive scope of this program is to be commended; it makes it worthwhile to come out and hear. Scanlon and Labounsky both turned in excellent performances. Labounsky's familiarity with Langlais and his work enabled a strong performance. Scanlon's familiarity with the instrument (he is organist and choirmaster at St. Paul's) is bringing him to an every fuller understanding of this instrument.
Note: For a Letter to the Editor concerning this review, see http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=236.