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Early Music, Recital Review

A Feast of Bach

March 30, 2008 - RAleigh, NC:

The North Carolina Bach Festival concluded its 2007-8 season with an attractive program of Bach organ works, one of which was given in an adaptation for chorus and organ accompaniment, with English words. There was also a version by Johann Ludwig Krebs of a chorale tune ("Wir glauben all' an einen Gott," properly called a "chorale prelude" in this guise) to which Bach himself returned frequently.

The program, given at the Raleigh Moravian Church, home of a small but splendid Adam Stein organ (built in 1902) that is well-suited to Bach, and which has in recent years benefited from a major and ongoing renovation, drew a respectable crowd on a cold, rainy, and generally dreary afternoon. (Come to think of it, the NCBF has never drawn a crowd that wasn't respectable — this of course has something to do with the overall solemnity of much of the music and the high levels of respect accorded it by the artists who grace the Festival's programs.)

First up was the Choir of the church, some 16 voices directed and accompanied by Cathy Hamner, who sang the "Alleluia Fugue," originally for organ alone, to words that begin "Praise the Lord and sing unto His holy name." There are few composers whose music lends itself so well to adaptation as Bach's, and this was a stirring arrangement, deftly sung.

The main body of the program was devoted to a series of performances by students from the Organ Studio of East Carolina University, introduced by Colin Andrews; several of the students are his, and others are the products of Janette Fishell, his spouse (who, he told us, has recently been appointed to the faculty at the University of Indiana School of Music). The students ranged in age from 17 to 26 (a grad student) and played at varying levels of proficiency, all of which was nonetheless sufficient to convey the impression that there is some fine teaching going on Down East, as Piedmont residents are wont to say. (The fact that Greenville is home to the splendid Fisk 126 Organ, installed in St. Paul's Episcopal Church, is an added bonus to the University's program.)

The players, in order of appearance, were Marty Barstow, 20, Samantha Koch, 17, Timothy Price, 20, Antony Bruno, 20, Daniel Russell, 21, and Weil Sawyer, 26. They played various preludes and fugues (in A minor, S.543, in C, S.531, in G minor, S.535, and in E minor, S.548), a toccata (in E, S.566); and a batch of chorale preludes ("Das alte Jahr vergangen ist,"S.614, "Nun komm der Heiden Heiland," S.599, "Jesus Christus, unser Heiland," S.626, "Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ," S.639, "Heut' triumphieret Gottes Sohn," S.630, and "O Mensch, bewein dein' Sünde groß," S.622). All of these chorale preludes are from the so-called Orgel-Büchlein (or Little Organ Book), probably compiled for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. The concert was a figurative celebration of JSB's birthday, on March 20, 1685. At this remove, what's 10 days or so among friends — and especially among friends of Bach?

It was an altogether admirable program, given with considerable variety of registrations and dynamics on a wonderful, sometimes charmingly clattery tracker organ that has ample power to shake the chamber and everything in it on demand. The preludes and fugues turn up often enough in recitals and on recordings, but those offered on this occasion were not all well-known pairs. The chorale preludes are heard fairly frequently, too, if one attends the right churches (where such things are still performed...), but they are often masked by whispering or departing congregants; all of them merit the close attention they received from this audience (although there's something to be said for the fact that — as several organists have told me — the greatest pleasure of all is derived by playing them). The program might have been structured to end with the presumed "heavy hitter," Weil Sawyer, who offered the E Major Toccata, "O Mensch, bewein," and the Prelude and Fugue in E minor, but in fact the work of several other players was as strong, in the works they performed, and the youngest of the lot, Samantha Koch, gave a truly heroic reading of the Prelude and Fugue in C. Here's hoping all of them will continue to study and work at their art. Here's hoping, too, that at some point someone will take them aside and give them some pointers on stage deportment, which admittedly isn't a big priority for most church organists.

The NC Bach Festival has continued to provide enriching concerts since its first performance (of the St. John Passion) back in 1979. At least one of its named supporters moved on a number of years ago to reap her heavenly reward, but the list is substantial, and it's a fact that Bach merits our frequent attention, so thanks and praise to NCBF President Chris Bickers, Vice-President Elizabeth Chopinet, and all who help make these programs possible.