Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Christiane Kessler in an organ recital at the Redeemer Church, Jerusalem

On July 20th 2013, Christiane Kessler played an organ recital at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City of Jerusalem. Ms. Kessler, a church organist and choral conductor from Marburg (Germany), gives two to four recitals per year; she was in Jerusalem for a month also to accompany services at the Lutheran Church. This was her first recital in Israel. The organ of the Redeemer Church was built in Berlin by Karl Schuke in 1971. It has 21 registers connected to two manuals and the pedal. It is an instrument rich in color and energy. From 1976 to 1980 Christiane Kessler studied Church Music in Frankfurt am Main, working as a regional church musician near Frankfurt from 1981 to 1994. Moving to Marburg in 2000, Ms. Kessler is organ professor in Schluechtern and a tutor at the Summer Academies for young Organists at the Baltic Sea.

The concert opened with Concerto in G major by the little-known North German composer Christoph Wolfgang Drückenmüller, of whom there are few works. Kessler’s playing of the work was vivacious, fresh, exact and well defined in character. This was followed by Venetian composer Tomaso Albinoni’s (1671-1750) Adagio in g minor, a work only discovered in 1940 by musicologist Remo Giazotto in the Dresden State Library. A reconstruction based on realization of the figured bass, possibly for organ, it was probably a fragment of a sonata da chiesa. The work is mostly Giazotto’s, with Albinoni’s two thematic elements consisting of only six bars. Kessler presented the work’s poignant pathos, its melodic tranquility and elegiac character.

An interesting item on the program was Fantasia in g minor by Czechoslovakian organist, harpsichordist and composer Jan Křtitel Kuchař, one of the first musicians to recognize and publicize Mozart’s works. Bohemia’s leading organist of the Rococo style and one of the few composers to see the organ as a full-blown solo instrument, Kuchař’s best-known compositions are those for organ. Constructed in an ABCBA cyclic form, one hears the influence of Mozart’s style and the polyphonic richness of organ repertoire in the g minor Fantasia. Kessler brought out its spontaneous character and textural possibilities – ranging from intense denseness to light, bell-like and even naïve utterances.

It takes an organ recital of this kind to remind the concert-goer that the great and versatile musician and artist Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was both an accomplished organist, a skilful improviser on the instrument and the first composer of international renown after Bach to return to the organ. He composed several dozen organ pieces of one kind or another.  One important collection is that of the “Three Preludes and Fugues” opus 37 (1837), dedicated to the English organist Thomas Attwood, with whom Mendelssohn was acquainted. Christiane Kessler’s playing of two preludes showed Mendelssohn at his most traditional, with Baroque forms and Romantic techniques not at all incompatible.  The Prelude in G major exuded a sense of well-being, with the C major played in more strident timbres. Also of the German organ repertoire, we heard Josef Gabriel Rheinberger’s (1839-1901) Cantilena in F major opus 148 from one of his 20 organ sonatas. Rheinberger’s organ had no swell division; dynamic changes could be created only by adding or taking off stops. He disliked ostentation and avoided dramatic writing. The Cantilena is, therefore, conservative and Classical in concept, but the piece is highly melodious, accessible and wistfully sentimental, with ascending and descending octaves in the pedal.

Moving to France, Théodore Salomé (1834-1896) was well-known not only for his brilliant organ-playing but also for his chamber music, piano pieces, songs and church music. The three pieces of his Kessler played are probably used in church services; they displayed the compelling grandness and full use of organ sonority. French organist and composer Louis Lefébure-Wély (1817-1869), who was instrumental in the development of French organ music, in particular, in the evolution of French symphonic organ style, also wrote other instrumental music and a comic opera. A highly respected figure on the music scene and in the bourgeois salons of Paris, he held some of the most prestigious organ posts the city. He was known for his exceptional pedal technique. Christiane Kessler chose to perform two contrasting pieces by Lefébure-Wély. The first was Andante: “Choeur de Voix humaines” (Chorus of the Nuns) – an interesting and especially lush combination of dark-colored bass sounds, reedy melody and a brighter embellishing voice.  Kessler’s energetic playing displayed the panache (and the composer’s penchant for secular music) in her playing of the flamboyant “Boléro de concert”. The latter piece boasted much Spanish flavor, its middle section evoking a village fairground.  

Austin Lovelace (1919-2012) was one of America’s most distinguished church musicians, a prolific composer of hymnody and organ music and educator in the field. His “Gigue for Fanfare Trumpet”, although tonal, avoids cliché writing. Its joyful mood makes good use of woodwind- and brass stops. We heard a short piece by another American composer – David German (b.1954). “Festive Trumpet Tune”, also tonal in concept, features the festive sound of the trumpet (the score includes a separate trumpet part).

This was an especially interesting selection of organ works, introducing the audience to some lesser-known works and covering three centuries of music from Europe and the USA. Christiane Kessler’s playing is vivid and informed and audiences can enjoy her interest in the wide gamut of organ repertoire. Talking to her over a glass of wine following the recital, Ms. Kessler said she was looking forward to having more time to explore the dynamic action of the organ in the Redeemer Church. 

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