Friday, November 14, 2014

Romanian organist and harpsichordist Zsolt Garai ends his three concerts in Israel with an organ recital at St. George's Anglican Cathedral, Jerusalem

On November 7th 2014 Romanian organist Zsolt Garai gave the last of three organ recitals in Jerusalem on his first concert tour of Israel. Under the auspices of the Romanian Cultural Institute (Tel Aviv), the recital took place at the Cathedral of St. George the Martyr. Established in 1898, the Anglican Cathedral, situated in East Jerusalem, is the seat of the Bishop of Jerusalem of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East. Its buildings surround a typically English collegiate quadrangle. The church organ, a Rieger instrument (Austria, 1984) boasting a lively temperament and many reed stops, stands at ground level at the back of the church. With the seats turned to face the back of the Cathedral for the occasion, people attending the concert enjoyed a rare opportunity of seeing the artist performing from close proximity, not the case at most organ recitals. Garai was assisted by Inna Dudakova, organist of St. George's Cathedral.

Born in 1979 in Arad (Romania), Zsolt Garai began piano lessons at a young age. He attended the Sabin Dragoi Art School (Arad), proceeding to the Gheorghe Dima Music Academy in Cluj, Napoca, where he studied organ and composition, taking a master’s degree in 2005 and receiving his PhD in 2013. With a busy international performing career in Europe, Zsolt Garai is presently a lecturer in the Music Pedagogy Department of the Emanuel University, Oradea Romania and is the harpsichordist in the “Il Pastor Fido” Baroque Music Ensemble.

The program opened with J.S.Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565). Probably composed some time from 1703 to 1708 (the original manuscript did not survive) and published in 1833 through the efforts of Felix Mendelssohn, this work never fails to grip the listener with its opening unison phrase peeling out like a flash of lightning. Garai brought out all the Toccata’s different motifs, pacing them spontaneously and presenting the piece’s rhapsodic, dazzling character. With the Fugue beginning more modestly, he built it up gradually, offering its conversational aspect with small echoing responses, arriving at its momentous and dramatic interrupted cadence, giving way to brightly timbred runs, dissonant chords and energy to bring the work to an exhilarating conclusion.

We then heard a work written by Bernardo Storace, an Italian composer (fl.1664), about whom very little is known, apart from the fact that he was vice maestro di cappella to the Messina senate. His only known volume, an impressive collection of keyboard works published in Venice (1664), belies his predilection for variation forms. Garai’s performance of a Passacaglia (played with no pedals) was colored with timbral contrasts, also contrasts of meter and mode, with vitality as well as humor, its stylish, imaginative keyboard writing and varied techniques attesting to the composer’s own technical ability.

Daniel Croner (1656-1740), apparently a native of Kronstadt (now Brasov, Romania), a theologian and composer of organ music, completed four books of organ tablatures. A scribe, he was known to have spent four years copying works from the Brasov manuscript, mostly for his own use and for the Lutheran service. The Magnificat 8 toni, from the Brasov manuscript, consists of five verses, based on a traditional cantus firmus, probably originally alternating with sung chant. In four of them, the cantus is presented in long note values in the pedals, with the two manuals creating contrapuntal lines boasting much imitation. Garai’s playing offered an informed glimpse into the articulate and imaginative style of German pre-Bach organ composition, conservative and unpretentious in nature, yet innovative and certainly not lacking in dissonance.

An introspective moment was provided by French organist and composer Alexandre Guilmant’s (1837-1911) Sonatina, an organ arrangement of the first movement of Bach’s funeral Cantata no.106 “Gottes Zeit” (Actus Tragicus). Garai captured the meditative atmosphere of the work, the melody (scored by Bach for recorder) singing in bell-like tones against a veiled, mysteriously evocative registration of the lower instruments.

C.P.E Bach’s Sonata in G minor Wq70,6, one of five or six for the organ, takes the listener away from the complex counterpoint of Baroque organ music and into the realm of transparent lines bristling with melodic ideas. They use the manuals only as they were written for Princess Amalia of Prussia, Frederick the Great’s sister, who was unable to play the pedals. Garai’s unmannered and direct approach in his performance of the G minor sonata entertained the listeners with the music’s galant style, humor and joie-de-vivre.

The last two pieces on the program connected directly with J.S.Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor that had opened the recital. The first was “Ataccot” by Enjott Schneider (b. 1950, Germany), a musician of amazing versatility; musicologist, organist, singer, conductor and organist, he is a major composer of film music, his works characterized by the merging of many styles, from serial techniques to rock music. “Ataccot”, a tongue-in-cheek piece for organ, is simply a retrograde version of the D minor Toccata (hence its name). Neither unpleasing nor nonsensical to the ear, this piece is effective. In his playing of it, Zsolt Garai preserved Bach’s majestic soundscape. Listening to it, I found myself unraveling the various motifs to restore them to their originasl order!

The artist enjoyed the quality of the organ at the Cathedral, finding it lively and reactive. Garai's choice of the Toccata was not coincidental: as a doctoral candidate, he did research on the origins of the organ toccata from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. The recital ended with Zsolt Garai’s “To-kka-tes”, also inspired by-and based on the same Bach Toccata. Taking motifs from the Toccata, Garai develops them with a generous dose of fantasy, dynamic variety, textures and timbres, choosing motifs that produce some decidedly dissonant and energetic material, his use of clusters imaginative and vivid. An avalanche of ideas sounding fresh and spontaneous and displaying the organ’s colorist possibilities, Garai gave the virtuosic text his all, signing out with a merging of old and new and the wink of an eye.

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