Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Organist Heinrich Walther (Germany) performs an all-Bach recital at the Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

Photo:Florian Kleineffen

A Bach organ recital is an important event at any Bach Festival. The second Bach in Jerusalem Festival (March 20-25, 2017) was no exception. Stepping in to replace Dutch organist Peter van Dijk at short notice, Heinrich Walther (Germany), no new face to Israeli organ music aficionados, played an all-Bach recital at the Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 25th. The concert, rung in by church bells, was well attended.

Regarded as perhaps the greatest composer of all time, Bach was known during his lifetime primarily as an outstanding organ player and technician. Johann Sebastian Bach’s complete organ works – some 250 of them - would probably fill seventeen CDs. In 1706, Bach returned from his five-month sojourn in Lübeck to hear and study under the great organist Dietrich Buxtehude. Aged 21, he took up a position in Mülhausen, moving to Weimar a year later, writing vast amounts of music for the organ and rapidly becoming known throughout Germany as one of the country’s greatest organists. Organ pupils came to him from far and wide and he received requests to test or dedicate organs in various locations. His tests began with an examination of the organ’s “lungs”, which meant pulling out all the stops, a horrifying noise to those present. He would usually finish his test by improvising a prelude and fugue to test its clarity for counterpoint. Bach’s late organ works date from his Leipzig period (1723 to his death).

Heinrich Walther opened his Jerusalem recital with the Prelude and Fugue in E-minor BWV 548, one of Bach’s most elaborate and vivacious organ pieces dating from the Leipzig period. The work represents Bach the virtuoso, playing recitals for aristocratic audiences. Walther’s celebratory performance gave expression to the Prelude’s sweep and drama and to the pizzazz of its highly chromatic Fugue (the longest organ fugue by the composer) ending in a blaze of the E-major chord. Then to “Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr” (Glory to God in high), one of the Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes composed in the last decade of Bach’s life. Of the cantus firmus chorale form, Walther’s bright, bell-like timbre chosen for the ornamental descant was set off by the mild, smooth bass chorale melody. Also from the last decade of Bach’s life, we heard three movements from The Art of Fugue - Bach’s monumental compendium of counterpoint all based on one principal subject. Following the serene, intimate colouring Walther chose for Contrapunctus I, Contrapunctus VII challenged the listener to find the subject in its many guises within the dense contrapuntal web. Contrapunctus X, in which the artist introduced some interesting timbral colours, teased the listener by presenting a new subject before reintroducing the principal melody. In the Trio Sonata in C-minor BWV 526, one of the six in Bach’s repertoire, all written rigorously as a trio (right hand, left hand and pedals), Walther opened with a fresh, charming and lustrous Vivace, as the strong noon sunlight poured through the church’s upper windows.  The gentle, fluid and singing Largo offered smooth tranquillity, to be followed by a lively fugue, one not without whimsy! With the Passacaglia and Fugue BWV 582, we return to Bach’s young years, to an early work possibly written following Bach’s life-changing visit to Lübeck. Heinrich Walther’s playing of the twenty-one variations of this ingenious passacaglia reflected deep enquiry into each as he dipped into Bach’s palette of textures, of spare, transparent variations to grand tutti, from quirky subdivisions of the subject and on to its massive conclusion. And if Guillaume de Machaut described the pipe organ as the “king of instruments”, the fugue must surely be the utmost working of the musical mind. Walther gave expression to the richness and nobility of this double fugue.
What would Bach say to the lungs of the Redeemer Church’s organ? 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 colours and inspiring in energy, as celebrated in Heinrich Walther’s recent recital.



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