Monday, April 18, 2016

Rudolf Lutz (Switzerland) in "The Art of Improvisation" at the Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem

Organist Rudolf Lutz (

One of the Israel International Organ Festival’s concerts (taking place in Jerusalem and Haifa) “The Art of Improvisation” was the title of a recital given by Rudolf Lutz (Switzerland) April 16th 2016 at the Dormition Abbey, Mount Zion, just a few steps away from the Zion Gate that leads into the Old City of Jerusalem. Dedicated in 1910 by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Dormition Abbey is home to monks of the Benedictine community and hosts theological students from Germany, Switzerland and Austria in Jerusalem on a one-year program. Father Ralph Greis is the Abbey’s permanent organist.  The Dormition Abbey’s large pipe organ, encased in white oak was made by the German Oberlinger firm to fit the exact measurements of the central gallery. The organ was inaugurated in 1980 and completely revamped in 1992.

Artist and works performed at the concert were introduced by founder and president of the Israel Organ Association Mr. Gérard Levi. The program opened with works in the style of J.S.Bach, the first inspired by “Ein feste Burg” BWV 80 (A Mighty Fortress is Our God) a well-known melody based on Martin Luther’s hymn setting of Psalm 46; Lutz’ majestic extemporization was rich in colour, finely constructed, a bonus comprising his singing and a reference to the Hallelujah Chorus from Händel’s “Messiah”. The artist’s enormously skilful improvisation of a two-subject fugue in the style of Bach embraced various timbres, combined and contrasted the first subject of leaps with the second of descending chromaticism, to culminate in a virtuosic fantasia. The only original Bach work on the program was “O Mensch, Gewein dein Sünde gross” (O man thy grievous sin bemoan) one of 46 chorale preludes from Bach’s Orgel-Büchlein (Little Organ Book), the artist presenting its pensive, tragic Passiontide text in veiled, mysterious and intimate timbres and highlighting its expressive character, the work’s elaborate course leading to a totally unexpected C-flat major chord via a rising chromatic bass line.  

Then to improvisations on a piece of Rudolf Lutz himself, a work inspired by birds and by the very place in which we were gathered. “Birds on Mt. Zion” consisted of three pieces: quoting the “Spring” concerto from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, “My Heart is Like a Bird in Spring” was sunny and ebullient, the artist’s use of the glockenspiel evocative of birds; not utilizing the bass register, Lutz depicted “Sad Birds in a Cage” with melancholy, his occasional small hesitations adding to the piece’s introspective mood; at times evoking the sound of a music box (or was that my subjective listening?) “A Parrot in Golden Park” was a celebration of timbres, with reedy woodwind sounds but also many magical, golden tone qualities.  Opening with grand “orchestration”, “An English Fantasy”, included allusions to the Grand Amen and to Hubert Parry’s powerful 1910 setting of William Blake’s “Jerusalem”. In the course of the piece, Lutz hones the textures down to personal hymn-singing level, only to allow them to spiral once again to the imposing opulence so characteristic of the pipe organ, to be joined by his own substantial singing voice.

Using the text of Psalm 8 as his inspiration, Rudolf Lutz created the mystery and wonder of night and stars, setting its reflective melody against velvety clusters, his use of the Zimbelstern (cymbal star) stop delicately sprinkling the sky with myriads of stars.

‘When I consider your heavens,
The work of your fingers,
The moon and the stars,
Which you have set in place,
What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
Human beings that you care for them?’ (Psalm 8, 3-4)

In three pieces based on traditional songs, the first two being Israeli melodies, we heard “Dona, dona” its melody set against a jaunty, bucolic and whimsical wooden cartwheel movement-like accompaniment. In the third item of the group, a Swiss hymn-style folk song from the Bernese Alps, the artist sang verses in tenor- and then falsetto voice, introducing references to Swiss mountain music as well as some interesting harmonic strategies.

Rudolf Lutz called the final work on the program “Elijah on Mt. Horeb”. In the lush style of Romantic organ music, the five movements presented vivid musical descriptions, as in the gripping depiction of the storm in “God is not in the storm”, the frenetic, feisty portrayal of fire, its flames almost visually flaring up in “God is not in the fire”, the dramatic and menacing description of the earthquake in the fourth movement, then finally presenting a sense of tranquillity in “God is in the soft wind”, its soundscape bathed in light and caressing lyricism, its optimism and longing borrowed from Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, to conclude with the soothing sounds of Brahms’ “Lullaby”.

Conductor, organist, harpsichordist, pianist and composer, Rudolf Lutz (b.1951) studied in Switzerland and Austria. Organist of the St. Laurence Church (St. Gallen, Switzerland), he was appointed artistic director of the St. Gallen J.S.Bach Foundation, establishing its choir and orchestra for the foundation’s mission to perform J.S.Bach’s complete vocal works. A highly acclaimed teacher of historical improvisation, Lutz performs and lectures in Europe, today teaching at the Basel Schola Cantorum and the Basel University of Music. His diverse musical activities include chamber music performance, playing the dulcimer in “Alpenglühn” (the original Appenzell string ensemble) and appearances as a jazz musician! This was Maestro Lutz’ first visit to Israel.

Prior to the concert, Rudolf Lutz spoke of his language as being music, of the fact that almost all the works he was to perform would have no score, would be with the listener as they were played and then promptly vanish. Indeed, for over an hour, he had the audience at the edge of their seats. An artist of exceptional creativeness and technique, Maestro Lutz’ recital was indeed memorable.


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