Monday, April 9, 2018

Jacobs Serves the Davies Organ at its Fullest

Yesterday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, Paul Jacobs returned to the console of the Ruffatti Concert Organ. The first half of his program consisted entirely of music by Johann Sebastian Bach. The intermission was then followed by a single composition, a fantasy and fugue by Franz Liszt that lasted about half an hour in duration. However, it might be fair to say that the spirit of Liszt was already emerging through the approaches that Jacobs took to playing Bach.

While San Francisco is a city that hosts a generous number of musicians both competent and passionate about taking historically-informed approaches to Bach’s music, it is worth noting that the story of the organ is as much one of technology as it is one of musicianship. By the time of the Baroque period, pipe organs had matured to support a generous supply of pipes capable of serving up an impressive diversity of sonorities. Driving those pipes, on the other hand, was another matter. Indeed, it would be fair to say that, before electricity became commonplace, it was never possible to guarantee that those pipes would be “fed” with flows of air at a consistent pressure necessary for them to produce their intended sounds. For that matter it was only after digital controllers replaced the intricate mechanics behind the control of stops that performers had a reliable way to determine which ranks of pipes would sound at any given time.

Over the course of yesterday’s recital, Jacobs exercised just about every benefit of contemporary technology to its fullest. As a result, his approach to the all-too-familiar BWV 565 toccata and fugue in D minor, his very first selection, allowed the Ruffatti organ to roar (almost literally) with the full capacity of all the ranks of pipes at its disposal. How could the experience of listening to all of that might and power under such disciplined control not be Lisztian in spirit?

Was this a “violation of the spirit of Bach?” Clearly we have no idea how Bach himself would have played this piece, let alone the circumstances under which he would have played it. We do not even have a copy of the music in Bach’s own hand. The earliest manuscript, which at least dates from the eighteenth century, was written by Johannes Ringk:

The beginning of Johannes Ringk’s copy of BWV 565 (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Note that this is little more than the notes themselves. There is not even an extra staff to separate the pedal work from the manuals. Indeed, in his always informative remarks to the audience, Jacobs observed that organ scores almost never provide any information about how stops are to be deployed.

How could they? Every organ has its own set of pipes that contribute to its own characteristic sonorities. The organist must be responsible for “orchestrating” what is provided through the notation. That process must take into account the physical nature of the entire instrument and the space in which its pipes will resound. Jacobs explained that this was why he must always arrive several days early to work out which stop settings will be most suitable for the music he will be playing.

One may thus say that his approach to Bach is one that respects the spirit of the notes themselves while making his own decisions about how those notes will register with the listener. Those decisions inevitably involve the subtleties of sound quality itself; and, where an instrument like the Ruffatti organ is concerned, there is a good chance that just about all of the sonorities would have sounded alien to Bach himself.

Nevertheless, through Jacobs’ performance, one is still provided with a clear account of what has been notated in all prevailing “authoritative” sources of Bach’s compositions. That includes the full variety of ways in which Bach would approach writing a fugue as much as the more improvisational approach encountered in his preludes and toccatas. In contrast to the roaring spectacle of BWV 565, Jacob’s played the BWV 528 trio sonata in E minor, which involves only three voices in polyphony, one for the right hand, one for the left, and one for the pedals. He reminded the audience of the intense difficulty behind such transparency, where it is impossible to hide a note that falls out of place.

Just as intimate was his following selection, the opening sinfonia to Bach’s BWV 156 cantata, Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe (I am standing with one foot in the grave). This was originally written for a solo oboe accompanied by strings and continuo. However, having established that any organ performance requires some degree of “orchestration” from the organist, there is no reason why that organist cannot “repurpose” an orchestration of Bach’s own! The first half of the program then concluded with the BWV 532 prelude-fugue coupling in D major.

In many respects the Liszt selection was conceived to honor Bach’s spirit. The fantasy and fugue are both based on a single chorale, “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam” (to us, to our salvation). However, the music did not come from any church service. Rather, it was composed by Giacomo Meyerbeer for his five-act opera Le prophète (the prophet). As a result, there is a prevailing sense of chromaticism that situates the music about a century beyond anything that Bach had created.

One result is that the fantasy has exploratory qualities that one would not have encountered in Bach. While that chorale does not get its first clear statement until it appears as the fugue theme, it gradually insinuates itself as the fantasy unfolds. In other words Liszt uses the free-form approach of the fantasy to acclimate the ear to both the melodic elements of the chorale and his own techniques for both stating and embellishing those elements. In its own way Liszt’s composition is as pedagogical as the many pieces that Bach wrote for his students, rather than for an “audience of listeners.”

As if to reinforce this point, Jacobs circled back to Bach for his single encore selection. This was the BWV 578 fugue in G minor, usually known as the “little” fugue. Even in this brief composition, Bach has much to show the student about what a fugue is and how it works. Jacobs did not try to steer away from the pedagogical side of this music; but, once again, he made stop selections consistent with the capabilities of the Ruffatti organ, serving up all of that pedagogy in a context of ear-dazzling rich sonorities.

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