Monday, October 21, 2019

Jacobs Brings Vierne Organ Symphony to Davies

I have been attending Paul Jacobs’ performances in the Organ Recital Series prepared by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall for as long as I have been going to concerts in that Series. I was also in the audience when he gave his debut performance with SFS in 2009. The SFS Ruffatti Concert Organ commands a prodigious number of ranks of pipes, controlled through five manual keyboards and one for pedals. Over the years Jacobs has cultivated a full command of the technical nuts and bolts to evoke the most expressive sounds from this instrument to accommodate just about any genre of organ music. He regularly plays without sheet music, preferring instead to focus on thorough advance preparation work.

Jacobs is also not afraid to rise to the challenges of major undertakings. Such was the case yesterday afternoon, when he devoted the second half of his program to Louis Vierne’s Opus 59 (sixth) symphony in B minor. As is almost always the case, he prefaced the performance with informative remarks to the audience. He justified Vierne’s use of the genre category “symphony” (rather than “sonata”) on the grounds that the diverse sonorities of the different ranks of pipes required the same level of “orchestral” thinking that went into any of the symphonies performed by SFS.

Jacobs also prepared his audience by explaining that the duration of this five-movement symphony would be about 40 minutes. He then demonstrated that the movements shared a few basic thematic motifs, which he played in a manner that gave each a straightforward account. Thus, even before the performance began, my mind was coming to terms with the abundant sequences of semitones in those examples, reminding me of one of my teachers who delighted in accusing students of “slimy chromaticism.”

Lord only knows what he would have thought of Vierne’s Opus 59! To be fair, however, there was clearly something absorbing in the way Vierne could summon those sequences of semitones for the sake of both thematic and embellishing expression. One might almost say that he was exploiting ambiguity along a spectrum with theme at one end and embellishment at the other. Nevertheless, Jacobs’ approach to execution tended to derive from solid commitments about which was which and when, sorting the possibilities through the assignment of the melodic lines to different ranks of pipes (thus, emphasizing to the attentive listener that Opus 59 really was a symphony, rather than just a sonata for an organ with a diversity of sonorities). The result could not have been a more engaging introduction to music seldom heard either in performance or on recordings.

Photograph of a manuscript copy (not in Bach’s hand) of the opening measures of BWV 582 (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The first half of the program offered a chronological journey of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Charles Ives. However, chronology only applied to dates of composition. The program began with the familiar BWV 582 passacaglia and fugue in C minor. The autograph manuscript appears to have been lost, and there is no clear indication of when Bach wrote this piece. However, there is speculation that he wrote it after his four-week visit to Lübeck (end of 1705 and beginning of 1706) to listen to the organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude, who wrote many compositions based on ostinato repetition of a simple theme.

BWV 582 shows just how imaginative Bach could be in building on such a theme. Indeed, after it has been well-established by the pedal work, Bach allows the theme to migrate up to the manuals, providing the organist with the opportunity to display some virtuoso pedal-work. Then, as the title implies, after serving up twenty variations, Bach then turns the ostinato theme into a fugue subject, exploring another rabbit-hole fraught with even more possibilities for invention.

It goes without saying that any instrument Bach approached to play this music was far more modest than the Ruffatti Concert Organ. Nevertheless, Jacobs was not shy about enlisting as many ranks of pipes as imagination could justify in his account of BWV 582. Thus, while the music itself may have been solidly grounded in eighteenth-century composition techniques (based on practices well established in earlier centuries), Jacobs’ account was definitely up there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It almost felt as if he was nodding slyly at all of the arrangers who felt that the best way to perform BWV 582 was with a full symphony orchestra. Indeed, such was the thinking of Leopold Stokowski (himself an organist), Ottorino Respighi (the version Pierre Monteux recorded with the San Francisco Symphony in 1949), and Eugene Ormandy (whom I heard conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra).

Purists might have argued that summoning so many different ranks of pipes was not echt Bach. For their sake Jacobs played the BWV 528 E minor trio sonata. Bach intended this music to be played on two separate manuals and a pedal keyboard. Thus, each of the three parts could be assigned its own rank of pipes for unique sonority, and the listener could appreciate how those parts interleaved without ever overstepping the bounds of acceptable harmonic practice. To some extent Jacobs’ performance was muddled by the sheer distance of the pipes from the audience, but his selections of sonorities tended to compensate for that shortcoming.

The Mozart selection was created for entirely different purposes. It was created for a clockwork organ, sort of like a wind-driven music box built around a clock. Instead of simply chiming, the clock would perform a different composition for each hour of the day. Mozart responded to commission by providing and Adagio and Allegro movement in F minor, and this were subsequently collected as K. 594 in Ludwig Ritter von Köchel’s catalog. This rather odd representative of Mozart’s work had a ring of familiarity, probably because it was included in a collection I have of four-hand Mozart compositions.

With only the slightest pause, Jacobs segued from Mozart into Ives, playing the latter’s set of variations on “America.” This is Ives at his most flamboyant and prankish at the same time. Some of the variations are downright silly and one is provocatively bitonal. My composition teacher liked to say that Ives wrote music that made you slap your thigh and declare yourself proud to be American. (The fact that the tune itself also happens to be “God Save the Queen” is conveniently overlooked.) Jacobs was certainly not afraid to slap his thigh (figuratively) during the performance, serving up a first-rate account of how much fun it can be to listen to Ives at his most unabashed.

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