Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Swiss organist Marc Fitze at the Redeemer Church (Jerusalem)

One of the events of the 2012-2013 Israel International Organ Festival, under the auspices of the Israel Organ Association, was “Sound of the Animals”, a recital by Marc Fitze (Switzerland) on February 16th 2013 at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in  Jerusalem’s Old City.  Installed in the Redeemer Church in 1971 the organ, built by Karl Schuke (Berlin), has 21 registers connected to two manuals and the pedal; it is an instrument rich in timbres and vitality.

Marc Fitze began piano- and organ studies in Bern, later moving to the New England Conservatory (Boston, USA) to study with Yuko Hayashi. He has won prizes for composition and organ and has given organ recitals in Europe, Mexico, the USA and Japan. His recordings include Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals” on the new Fisk organ in the Lausanne Cathedral. Fitze has also specialized in the art harmonium, its repertoire and restoration of the instruments. Fitze is the organist of the Bern Heiliggeistkirche (Holy Spirit Church)  and is organ professor at the Bern Music Academy. This was the artist's first concert tour of Israel.

The program began with Fitze’s transcription of the first movement of Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) Symphony no.83 in g minor “The Hen”. Composed in 1785, the work is one of the “Paris Symphonies”. Opening with hearty sound, the movement is peppered with Haydenesque humor and joy. The fact that the composer’s scoring was for strings, flute, two oboes, two bassoons and two horns presented no problem to Fitze, whose transcription of the piece was a feast of colors and dynamic variety, the hen motif (introduced by the  oboe) making articulate entries in this spirited and somewhat theatrical (opera buffa?) movement.

Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1728 “Nouvelles suites de pieces de clavecin” (New Suites for Harpsichord) includes nine genre pieces in the scale of “g” (major and minor), one of the best-known being “La Poule” (The Hen). With its repeated notes effectively imitating the clucking (or pecking) of chickens, Fitze’s reading of the witty work, complete with lively spreads, took on large changes of registration as the five repeated notes return continuously as if becoming more insistent. Remaining on the avian theme, the “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” from Modest Mussorgsky’s (1839-1881) “Pictures at an Exhibition” originally for piano (1874) describes a costume design by Victor Hartmann for “Trilby”, a ballet with music by Julius Gerber. Fitze chose a frothy, weightless and slightly muted timbre for the opening of the frenetic dance, moving into a more bell-like sound. After hearing the orchestration of Mussorgsky’s work, Fitze’s performance of it makes a valid case for playing it on the organ.

We then heard Swiss organist, composer and pedagogue Lionel Rogg’s “La Femme et le Dragon” (The Woman and the Dragon). Rogg, (b.1936, Geneva), is known to be a virtuosic organist and improviser; these qualities were, indeed, the basis of “La Femme et le Dragon”. Beginning with a melody played against a static cluster, Fitze gave a daring performance of a work that is uncompromising in intention and almost visual, bristling with intensity and unreserved effects – ominously low fortissimo sounds, noise, eerie buzzy melodies, some brighter moments and, finally, a tranquil, ethereal, remote and otherworldly soundscape created in long, held sounds. In his presentation of the work’s forthright utterance of power, anguish and struggle, Fitze cuts no corners.

Then, to Camille Saint-Saëns’ (1835-1921) “Carnival of the Animals” in Fitze’s own transcription for organ: in a series of whimsical vignettes reflecting the composer’s personal observations of the animal world (organists – originally pianists – included in the category!) Fitze literally re-orchestrates the small pieces in the most authentic manner.  His gentle subtle flexing of rhythms creates a sympathetic elephant waltz, punctuates the kangaroo’s leaps and conjures up a lush, European forest from the depths of which the cuckoo’s modest call is so moving. The aquarium of gliding fish is glistening and silvery and the aviary boasts birds in full throat in playing that is brilliant and vibrant with fine passagework. The fossils merge with “Twinkle, twinkle little star” and the regal swan, the water lapping around her, glides majestically in pastel “covered” sounds. Only the organists, worriedly practicing and trying to improve their scale-playing, are not at one with nature. The concert concluded with Fitze’s exuberant and virtuosic playing of the Finale. Throwing a new and highly creative light on the pipe organ’s range of possibilities, Marc Fitze uses color generously, yet addressing detail and precision.  He is an artist of rare talent.  

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