Saturday, May 17, 2014

Heinrich Walther (Germany) in his first performance on the Schuke organ of the Redeemer Church, Jerusalem

The bells of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer issued in the third event of the Old City of Jerusalem Concerts on May 10th 2014 – an organ recital by the Heinrich Walther. Born in 1959 in Germany, Heinrich Walther studied in Freiburg, Toulouse and Dallas, studying organ with Zsigmond Szathmary, Xavier Darasse, Robert Anderson and Larry Palmer. Walther performs worldwide as an organist and on period keyboard instruments. His many CD recordings include, for example, new works of contemporary composers and his own transcriptions of orchestral works by Mendelssohn, Franck and Reger. Heinrich Walther teaches at the colleges of music/church music in Freiburg, Heidelberg and Rottenburg; he joins courses as guest tutor and, as of 2006, has been honorary organist of the Saint Matthieu Church Colmar, France.

The program opened with Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Prelude and Fugue in e minor BWV 548, a mature work dating from the composer’s Leipzig period, a time he was testing organs and performing recitals for aristocratic audiences. One of the most ambitious and monumental works for the organ, it shows Bach at the peak of his performing career. Walther presents the pliant, richly harmonic and somewhat vocal material of the concerto-style prelude, in its four ritornello sections, as majestic and seamless musical narrative. The fugue is sometimes referred to as the “Wedge Fugue” on account of the opening theme which starts with one note, then with two notes either side to form a minor third, gradually widening to an octave; here is Bach’s fascination with forms and numbers. A true “Spielfuge” (virtuoso fugue), it is 231 bars long, Bach’s longest organ fugue and challenging to the extreme. Walther tackles its bravura passages with color and contrasts, tempering its flamboyancy with objective, level-headed playing and articulacy.

Heinrich Walther then performed three chorale settings of “Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr” (To God alone be praise) from the “Leipzig” Chorale Preludes, these eighteen pieces constituting a summit of the instrument’s repertoire. Originally composed in Weimar and revised in Leipzig from 1747 to 1749, the last years of Bach’s life, each of the “Great Eighteen” explores the various ways of transforming a simple chorale tune into an elaborate, multi-layered piece. Walther performed all three settings based on “Allein Gott in der Höh”, choosing to begin the elegant, contrapuntal introduction to the first (BWV 662), (Bach marked it Adagio) in a somewhat veiled timbre, the ornamented cantus then riding buoyantly above it in brassy tones. Walther’s reading of the second version, marked Cantabile, with the cantus in the tenor presented in reedy tonings, was tranquil; the cantus was preceded by the chorale melody in the pedals. He chose a range of interesting registrations. The third version, a trio setting celebratory and concerto-like in character, resounded in vital, positive utterances, its detail carefully presented.

The section of works by J.S.Bach concluded with Trio Sonata no.5 in C major BWV 608. According to Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, these trio sonatas were written some time between 1723 and 1729, or even as late as 1731, for Bach’s teenage son Wilhelm Friedemann to improve his flexibility and accuracy of both fingers and feet. To be played “à 2 Clav. E Pedal” may refer to the works’ three voices or to performance on a piped instrument (three manuals); perhaps they were practised on a pedal harpsichord in the Bach home. What characterizes all six of these trio sonatas is that the counterpoint is mostly woven into the two upper voices, harmonically supported by a bass line, a line nevertheless not taking a back seat when suggesting dance rhythms and engaging in dialogue. The trio sonatas adhere to the three-movement Vivaldian concerto form. As to BWV 529, Bach later transcribed it as a trio sonata for oboe and viola. Walther’s reading of the opening Allegro was bright, energetic and optimistic, its joyousness held under control, the florid Largo then personal and singing, spiritual rather than mournful, its reading both tasteful and appealing. The final Allegro was sympathetically played, noble rather than urgent in ambience, all melodic lines clean and pleasingly apparent.

The recital ended with W.A.Mozart’s “Fantasia for Mechanical Organ” in f minor K.608. The work was written at a time when there was a fashion among wealthy people to own mechanical clocks that had organs built into them. Mozart wrote three works for such machines. There is no autograph score for the K.608 Fantasia, but is familiar to many due to the many arrangements of it for piano (two- and four hands), for string quartet, orchestra, organ, and more. With its French overture-style beginning and two fughettas, it might be seen as Mozart’s homage to Bach, some of whose music he knew. Walther infused individual color and character into each of the different sections of the work, from its imposing brassy opening, its fughettas, its large chords and the lyrical, pastoral section to the grand concluding cadence. The artist’s engaging performance raises the question of how a mechanical instrument could do justice to such a fine piece. This was Heinrich Walther’s first visit to Israel. Talking to him following the concert, he said he had very much enjoyed playing on the Redeemer Church’s Karl Schuke organ (built 1971). A very fine recital.

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