Thursday, December 20, 2018

Prof. Hartmut Rohmeyer performs Bach organ works at the Redeemer Church, Jerusalem, in memory of Elisabeth Roloff

Elisabeth Roloff (Courtesy Redeemer Church, Jerusalem)

On December 15th 2018, Prof. Hartmut Rohmeyer, musical director of the Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem’s Old City, gave an all-Bach organ recital in memory of Elisabeth Roloff, who was the Redeemer Church’s musical director and organist from 1982 to 2008. The program consisted of some parts of “The Art of Fugue” as well as chorale preludes for Advent and Christmas.


For most of us, J.S.Bach’s “Die Kunst der Fuge” (The Art of Fugue) BWV 1080, one of the most enigmatic works of western music, seems to defy words. Curiously, Lutheran theologian, organist and philosopher Albert Schweitzer referred to it as “purely theoretical” and then there was English musicologist, critic and composer Wilfrid Mellers’ reference to it as “Bach playing alone to God and himself in an empty church”. An incomplete musical work of unspecified instrumentation, written in the last decade of Bach’s life, it represents the high point of Bach's experimentation with monothematic fugal writing. Its twenty sections (counting the canons and the inversus performances of the mirror fugues) of intense counterpoint, all in the key of D minor, using some variation of a single principal subject and generally in order of increasing complexity, have been recorded by orchestra, string quartets, viols, saxophones and recorders, organists, harpsichordists and pianists. One of its unique qualities is that it works in all media.


At the Redeemer Church, Prof. Rohmeyer, organist and music director of the church as of March 2018, eased the listener into Bach’s compositional process via the first four sections of The Art of Fugue with his unmannered and articulate playing of Contrapunctus I, of Contrapunctus II, its dotted character set into a rich, reedy canvas, then followed by the subject in inversion in the chromatic soundscape of Contrapunctus III, with Contrapunctus IV definitely embracing in majestic, brassy and forthright playing.


Then to three Advent chorale preludes from Bach’s Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes, a late collection representing the summit of Bach's sacred music for solo organ. Added to the collection by Bach himself between 1739 and 1742, the early versions of almost all the chorale preludes probably date back to 1710–1714, when Bach was court organist and director of music at the court of Wilhelm Ernst, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, a devout Lutheran and music lover. All three that Rohmeyer played are based on “Nun komm' der Heiden Heiland” (Come now, Saviour of the heathen), BWV 659, its chorale melody beautifully shaped in bell-like tones with a touch of tremolo over more subdued secondary voices and a walking bass, BWV 660, with its unconventionally dark, woodwind-associated registration supporting the cantus firmus in the soprano, to be contrasted by the larger-scale BWV 661, its counterpoint richly orchestrated. Rohmeyer’s reading of BWV 662 “Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr” (Alone to God on high be honour), a German version of the Christmas hymn "Gloria in excelsis Deo", gave reverent expression to the piece’s serenity, its highly ornate soprano chorale melody soaring above a secure pedal line.


And to two of the final sections: The four-voiced Contrapunctus XI, a gigantic triple fugue, is one of the Art of Fugue’s big moments, its complex weave tightly linked with Contrapunctus VIII. With all its grandeur, Rohmeyer’s playing was nevertheless contemplative, making maximal use of small motifs and rests.  The Art of Fugue reaches its apex with Contrapunctus XIV, the incomplete fugue with Bach’s signature B-A-C-H theme. Despite his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach writing “At the point where the composer introduces the name BACH in the countersubject to this fugue, the composer dies”.it is clouded by mystery. Bach scholar Christoph Wolff believes that Bach did in fact complete the final fugue and several musicians have written their own completion to it. Prof. Rohmeyer’s performance of Contrapunctus XIV was noble and penetrating as he issued in each new subject with timbral clarity, the sudden ceasing of sound always coming as a shock, a symbol of life cut short.


When “The Art of Fugue” was published, it included the chorale prelude “Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit” (Before Thy Throne I Stand with This), a new text to a chorale prelude written some years before. Playing this composition of unsurpassed serenity, Prof. Hartmut Rohmeyer presented its message of final, major-tinted resignation and comfort in gently veiled tonings.  The church’s Karl Schuke organ is especially suitable to performance of J.S.Bach’s music. The evening’s program, performed with outstanding clarity, eloquence, humility and a profound understanding of J.S.Bach’s music, was a meaningful tribute to Elisabeth Roloff, her musicianship and dedication to the Redeemer Church. As the church organ and its repertoire had formed the centrepiece of Bach’s creative evolution and existence, so it was with Elisabeth Roloff.

Prof. Hartmut Rohmeyer (courtesy Israel Organ Festival)

No comments: