Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Organist Ralph Greis (Germany) performs Bach, Franck and Vierne at the Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem

The Israel International Organ Festival closed its 2014-2015 season with a morning recital by Ralph Greis at the Dormition Abbey, Mount Zion, Jerusalem, on June 27th 2015. Fr. Ralph Greis, born 1972 in Germany, studied sacred music in Detmold, Germany, graduating in both church music and performance. In addition, he has studied Catholic theology in Paderborn (Germany) and at the Dormition Abbey. On receiving his diploma in 2001, he joined the monastic community of the Dormition Abbey, then taking responsibility for liturgical music at the Dormition Abbey as well as for concerts taking place in the basilica of the monastery. As music is an important part of liturgical life in Benedictine monasteries, Greis addresses much importance to the musical content of the liturgy, also believing in the spiritual content of all good music. The large organ of the Dormition Abbey, made to fit the exact measurements of the central gallery of the church, was built by the German firm of Oberlinger and inaugurated in 1980.

The recital opened with two works of J.S.Bach (1685-1750), beginning with the Prelude and Fugue in C-major BWV 547, written around 1725, either in Leipzig or Weimar. Greis displayed the bright, forthright and concentrated writing of the Prelude as well as its exploratory character. The 5-voiced Fugue, constructed from a very concise subject and no less concentrated in texture, is unusual in that the entry of the pedal comes in quite late in the piece. In one of Bach’s major variation works - Partite diverse sopra “O Gott, du frommer Gott” - written for manuals only, the chorale is presented with eight variations. A work of particular interest to an organist/theologist, each variation corresponds to the content of a stanza of the hymn; Greis also brought out the work’s contrapuntal and chromatic beauty, its decorative content and its variety of musical styles, offering registrational combinations to create strident, bright bell-like timbres, mellow moments and some of delicate fragility.

This was followed by “Prière” (Prayer) in C-sharp minor, opus 20 (1860) by César Franck (1822-1890). One of the “Six Pièces pour le Grand Orgue”, it was written in Franck’s religious period and is a personal, devotional meditation on grief, hope and faith, its pensive music eventually spiraling to an ecstatic, richly-textured climax. No small feat for the organist, “Prière” bristles with tenths, elevenths and cross-rhythms (César Franck had huge hands). Greis gave expression to the chorale-type melody forming the basis of this lush mood piece as it developed in a Romantic, symphonic manner, yet never losing sight of the work’s serious and ultra-legato essence.

The final work on the program was Louis Vierne’s Organ Symphony No.3 in F- sharp minor, opus 28. Schooled by both Franck and Widor, then becoming organist at Notre Dame, Paris, Vierne (1870-1937) brought the great French organ symphony to its zenith. His six organ symphonies, all in minor keys, were all written with the sound of the big, Romantic Cavaillé-Coll church organs of his day in mind. Influenced by his teachers and by Debussy, Vierne developed his own personal idiom, which was rich in Romantic harmony, complex in contrapuntal working and, indeed, symphonic in concept. In the opening Allegro maestoso of Symphony No.3, Greis’ forthright playing highlighted the movement’s imposing character and its complexities. In total contrast, the Cantilène’s melodiousness and dreamy poly-timbred toning took the listener into the languid mood of the senses. Greis gave the Intermezzo a touch of whimsy and elusiveness, to be followed by a leisurely-paced Adagio movement of great beauty, its introspective mood temporarily embellished by the church bells ringing outside…an interesting effect to remind the listener of where he was. The final movement, brilliant and fresh in style, intricate in footwork, brought the work to an impressive conclusion.

Fr. Ralph Greis ended his recital with a short, improvised piece, a token of his appreciation to the audience. Adding to the enjoyment of the concert was the fact that the artist at the organ was projected onto the front wall of the church. How often is it that one can watch the organist at work?

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