Power of the Pipe 

Visiting French organists deliver thrilling concert on First Presbyterian’s superb instrument

Visiting French organists deliver thrilling concert on First Presbyterian’s superb instrument

Vincent Dubois and Olivier Houette

Jan. 12 at First Presbyterian Church

Last Sunday afternoon at First Presbyterian Church, some 400 or so Nashvillians seized a chance to hear a superb pipe organ played by two young Frenchmen in the last program of a four-city American tour. Vincent Dubois and Olivier Houette delivered a delightful performance showcasing their prowess as well as the unique powers of an archetypal instrument. Ill used, as it commonly is, the pipe organ vomits pretentious blare. Well used, as this one was, the pipe organ stirs blood, flesh and marrow.

The pipe organ’s place is unique in Western civilization. It has sounded in Europe for more than 2,000 years, and for some 1,000 years has been an engineering marvel—a grand aggregation of pipes large and small interconnected through a complex of levers. Today’s organ is essentially what it was in 1500. The major improvement arrived early in the 20th century, when electrical power replaced human power to supply the requisite air. Before then, the great fugues of J.S. Bach soared above human beings, often children, sweating over bellows.

An organ may have only one row of pipes; it may have dozens. It may have several keyboards as well as a pedal board. Even after two millennia, builders use only two kinds of pipes—simple tubes that are essentially flutes, and tubes with reeds like clarinets. Pipes may be designed to sound edgy and lean and linear, or to sound rich and tremulous. They may be tweaked or “voiced” to simulate nearly any sonority, from soaring strings to explosive percussion. An array of switches called “stops” identifies which pipes can sound when.

No two organs sound quite the same. Good ones are custom-designed to fit a particular acoustic space, nowadays mostly in churches. Most church halls will accommodate only a few hundred persons and a moderately sized organ. Thus designers have to decide what kind of sound is desirable—whether a lean and linear baroque sonority or a lush romantic one. Only rarely can the same instrument do justice to both Bach and Widor. Accordingly, every time an organist plays, a fresh set of choices has to be made.

Dubois and Houette at First Presbyterian played a superb and deliberately eclectic instrument. Dedicated in 1974, built and installed by the Hamburg firm of Rudolph von Beckerath, this organ embodies perhaps the happiest marriage of sound and venue in our city. At its core, it is German baroque, but it incorporates qualities of French baroque instruments, which Beckerath had carefully studied. Beckerath himself said he intended the instrument to be one for “our time.” It offered to these accomplished young Frenchmen possibilities they made bewitching use of.

Sunday’s program opened with iconically baroque J.S. Bach (1685-1750), but it included also three 20th century Frenchmen, Louis Vierne (1870-1937), Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) and Thierry Escaich (b. 1965), along with the flamboyant Hungarian romantic Franz Liszt (1811-1886). First Presbyterian’s instrument is not Vierne’s huge organ at Notre Dame de Paris, nor Duruflé’s at St.-Etienne-du-Mont. But its sonorities demonstrated with sometimes thrilling effect that the pipe organ remains robust in the 21st century.

The two performers alternated at the console. Dubois, who opened and closed the program, almost preternaturally poised, was the more flamboyant of the two. Houette, though no less a master of his craft, was the more lyrical, the more meditative. Dubois was allowed to tie the final knot, showcasing the improvising skills French organists are famous for. The chosen theme—the carol tune “Bring a Torch, Jeannette Isabella,” delivered to him in a sealed envelope moments before he began to play—he brilliantly developed into a kind of reprise of what the program had been.

The program, played entirely from memory, opened with two Bach selections—an early Prelude and Fugue in D Major, and the famous Passacalgia in C Minor. Dubois delivered the D major, grand, sinewy and affirmative, with dazzling relaxed poise at a much faster tempo than those taken by such renowned organists as Peter Hurford, Todd Wilson or David Higgs. He delivered with splendid panache an iconic baroque texture beautifully articulated, and rhythmically precise.

Houette’s passacaglia in a minor key, by contrast, was a translation of German baroque into contemporary French. (A passacaglia is a set of variations, based in this case on a simple bass line presenting the figure to be permuted. Traditionally, the performer lets the changing textures of the music show the variety in the permutations.) Houette used uncommonly slow tempos, quite untypical rubato and an artfully chosen registration for almost every one of Bach’s 16 variations. His audacious approach was at first almost shocking, but the result played off well against the Dubois opener, and against more traditional readings of the piece, ingeniously highlighting the music’s astonishing fecundity.

Dubois followed the two Bach selections with Duruflé’s 1942 homage to Jehan Alain, an organist/composer killed in World War II before he was 30. Duruflé, as masterful though not as prolific as Bach, imagined sonorities as Gallic as Bach’s are Teutonic. If Bach is finely carved Bavarian oak, Duruflé is a silken tapestry interwoven with silver and gold. Like Bach, he grows a large and elaborate flower out of a simple seed—in this case, a five-note figure ingeniously derived from the name “Alain.” Dubois’ reading of this score was uncommonly up-tempo and emphasized celebration over lamentation, even as it acknowledged both. The brilliant bravura double fugue at the music’s climax joyfully affirmed that Alain continues to live through his own music and through this stirring tribute.

This first half of Sunday’s program far outweighed the second. Vierne, Liszt and Escaich, interesting enough in themselves, are all lesser composers than Bach or Duruflé. Dubois and Houette clothed all three in handsome threads—but an emperor must be more than raiment. Of these, Liszt was the greatest windbag. Primarily a pianist, he lifted from Bach, in this one of only three noteworthy organ works, a four-note motive that, in German notation, spells Bach’s name. Bach used it famously at the end of The Art of Fugue, left unfinished when he died. There its force is almost supernatural, iterating the name as if Bach were being summoned by angels to his celestial home. In Liszt, even delivered by Dubois, it becomes a Mr. Universe event, Arnold Schwarzenegger instead of Lance Armstrong.

But Dubois’ improvised finale rinsed that stale taste from the mouth. Technically and structurally brilliant, in several elaborate sections, it built to a mighty fugal finish, an astonishing tour de force. French organists, we are told, do it all the time. Last Sunday, two of them, just passing through, delivered a thrilling concert like an unexpectedly unveiled heirloom. Neither organist looked old enough to buy a legal drink in Music City, but to each of them I raise at least three grateful libations.


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