Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Organ recital at the Church of the Redeemer

Entering the Old City of Jerusalem from the Jaffa Gate, one walks down past the colorful, brightly-lit gift shops of the market and turns left into Muristan Road, leading into the Christian Quarter. Built in 1898, the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer is imposing and its simplicity and inspires tranquility. The occasion was an organ recital performed by Elisabeth Roloff. Born in Germany, Roloff has performed all over Europe, America and South America, has been director of music at the Redeemer Church for many years and has headed the organ department of the Jerusalem Academy of Music.

The recital opened with J.S. Bach’s (1685-1750) “Dorian” Toccata and Fugue, BWV 538. Written with no accidentals but in the key of “d”, suggesting the Dorian mode, the toccata opens with a motoric sixteenth-note motif that continues almost to the end of the movement. Roloff’s presentation of it was joyful and, at the same tome, well-measured and articulate. Bach has notated manual changes for the organist, an unusual practice for his day. In the long, complex and syncopated fugue, Roloff contrasted bright and darker registers, with massive chords bringing the piece to a close.

The works of French organist and organ composer Nicolas de Grigny (1671-1703) stand at the pinnacle of French Baroque organ music. Only one large volume of organ music has survived, from which we heard his “Hymne Veni Creator” (Come, Creator) in five versets. This is based on an old Latin hymn called the “Hymnus de Spiritu Sancto”, first recorded in Gregorian chant notation in a Benedictine cloister in 820. In 1524, it was translated into German, published in Protestant hymn books and sung at Pentecost. This organ setting begins by presenting the subject in the bass. Roloff gave each movement new interest, from the bell-like textures of the dotted fugue, to the highly ornamented Duo, to the “Recit de Cromorne”, the latter suggesting the strident, blown effect of early reeded instruments. The final movement, titled “Dialogue sur les Grands Jeux” is fugual, highly textured and grand. Roloff gave it a joyful reading, delighting the audience with a good mix of timbres.

J. S. Bach’s fantasia super “Komm heiliger Geist”, BWV 651 (Come, Holy Ghost) is the first of the composer’s 18 chorale preludes known as the Leipzig Chorales. It is a grand fantasia with the chorale melody in the pedal. The upper voices are ornate and complex. Roloff’s energetic performance of this had me constantly having to decide whether to focus on the brilliance of the upper voices or on the wonderful, mellow chorale melody!

Felix Mendelsson Bartholdy’s (1809-1847) Sonata no. 5 in D major is one of six organ sonatas, opus 65, composed between 1839 and 1844. From the first moments of the opening Andante movement, we find ourselves cushioned in the lush, warm textures of Romantic music; in the second movement, Andante con moto, in triple time, Roloff emphasized the element of Romantic song throughout; the Allegro maestoso is a myriad of brilliant colors and has much movement in upper voices. Roloff’s reading of it, however, did not lose sight of the maestoso (majestic) element and her tempo allowed for articulate detail.

In the last part of the program, we moved to the 20th century. Organist and professor of harmony, Maurice Durufle (1902-1986) was a member of the modern French organ school. His output was small but he was endlessly pedantic in reworking his oeuvres, resulting in the high quality of his writing. As the result of his Catholic education, all his music is based on Gregorian chant. His Chorale Variations on the Theme of “Veni Creator”, opus 4, were composed in 1930. This is a set of five miniature movements, from its joyous, bright opening, contrasted by the reedy, darker second movement and followed by the light-textured Allegretto; the fourth movement, marked “Andante expressivo” presents the theme in an upper voice; the final Allegro is a kaleidoscope of color and movement, a brassy, virtuoso “crowd scene”, and what a brilliant ending!

The recital ended with Durufle’s “Prelude et Fugue sur le nom d’Alain”, (Prelude and Fugue named after Alain) opus 7, composed in 1942. The work was written in memory of a younger colleague killed in World War II. The prelude is imaginative: Roloff created a multi-colored, spiraling and beguiling fantasy with layering that tempted the listener to step inside. Harmonies were exotic, timbres changed and there were conversational effects. The fugue began in muted colors but new effects appeared, such as that of church bells, building up in volume and brightness till the church was filled with grandeur of sound offered only by the church organ.

The organ in the Church of the Redeemer was built in 1972 by Karl Schuke (Berlin). It is well suited to the acoustic of this building. Elisabeth Roloff is constantly exploring the huge variety of organ repertoire. No two programs of hers are alike. Roloff’s performance was up lifting and inspiring.

No comments: