WASHINGTON, May 17, 2015 — Having had the opportunity to interview internationally famed French organist and composer Thierry Escaich last week, we found ourselves very much looking forward to his recital last week at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in a special NSO event. Currently serving as organist at the church of Saint Étienne du Mont in Paris, Mr. Escaich succeeded the renowned late French composer-organist Maurice Duruflé.
Happily, neither we nor the modestly-sized audience in attendance were disappointed in this performance. The artist put the Concert Hall’s still-new Rubenstein Family Organ through its paces in a spectacular recital that should have been better attended, particularly given the 1950s pricing of tickets to this event.
Mr. Escaich juggled an eclectic mix of Bach, Brahms and Vierne, tossing in a fascinating transcription of dances from Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” for fun. He also paralleled these works with several of his own, offering a unique opportunity to hear a living classical music composer performing and interpreting his own works.
Given last week’s respectable but less than full house, we suspect at least to some extent that an audience misconception exists regarding the kind of music they’ll likely encounter at any concert that involves the organ. That instrument is, with good reason, heavily associated with Christian worship services. Early versions of the pipe organ, in fact, evolved precisely to support liturgical celebrations.
However, the more powerful and sophisticated organs available developed in the 19th century and later offered organists and composers the power of an entire symphony orchestra at their fingertips. While still customarily making their living as teachers, professors or church organists, they began to develop a substantial body of secular organ compositions outside the liturgical environment.
An entire “school” of French organ composers evolved late in the 19th century under the influence of organist-composer César Franck. A Belgian transplant to Paris where he spent most of his professional career, Franck attracted a number of brilliant, influential pupils. While many of their compositions were written for the churches and cathedrals where they held appointments, others were created for the secular environment.
Franck’s sphere of influence arguably includes a long line of distinguished French organist-composers including Widor, Vierne, Dupré, Duruflé and even the more modernist Olivier Messiaen. By extension and temperament, it includes Mr. Escaich as well.
Given that the Kennedy Center’s versatile Rubenstein Family Organ is especially well-suited to this particular repertoire, Mr. Escaich’s program seems to have been designed to demonstrate both past organ tradition as well as where new music for the instrument is going today.
In our earlier discussion, Mr. Escaich noted – and essentially agreed with – Franck’s notion that any organist aspiring to greatness must first learn the essence of his craft by mastering the seminal organ works of J.S. Bach and later Romantic-era formalists like Mendelssohn and Brahms.
In keeping with that idée fixe, Mr. Escaich constructed his recital along similar lines by first offering an established work, then following it with a composition of his own that paralleled the pattern and structure of the better known work – a “compare and contrast” study, if you will.
Mr. Escaich led off his recital with an early “textbook” example of Brahms’ early Prelude and Fugue in G minor. After that opening statement was the first musical pairing of the evening that began with Brahms’ 1896 Chorale Prelude “Herzliebster Jesu” (“O dearest Jesus”), Op. 122, No. 2. This generally stately, chromatic work, was performed with great skill and clarity by the soloist.
Mr. Escaich then followed with a work of his own. Composed in 2010, this densely chromatic, nearly atonal riff on the preceding Brahms was entitled “Choral-Étude No. 3: “Herzliebster Jesu.” It proved to be the densest and thorniest work on the evening’s program, alternating rapid passagework with dense tone clusters and rapid pedal work, a favorite element in Bach that’s taken to the next level by the French organ tradition.
The next pairing of the evening began with a performance of Bach’s Chorale Prelude “In dir ist Freude” (“Within You there is peace”), BWV 615, a short exercise based on a traditional Lutheran hymn.
Mr. Escaich followed with his own 2010 Choral-Étude No. 1. It takes its inspiration from a different hymn tune “Nun freut euch, ihr Christen” (“Christians one and all, rejoice!”), better known here as the Christmas hymn “Adeste Fidelis” (“O Come All Ye Faithful”).
More accessible than his previous “Choral Étude,” Mr. Escaich’s introduces a bar or two of the “Adeste Fidelis” tune in not long after the introductory measures. Off-the-beat dance rhythms then alternate contrast with complex chords reminiscent of Messiaen at his most inventive, all underscored by rapid figures in the pedals, all fluidly executed.
The third and final pairing of the concert’s first half consisted of treatments by Bach and Mr. Escaich of the Easter hymn “Christ ist erstanden” (“Christ is risen”), namely Bach’s Chorale Prelude, BWV 615, and Mr. Escaich’s 2010 Choral-Étude No. 5.
Bach’s Chorale Prelude followed the hymn tune closely as it moved through three distinct yet related variations, while Mr. Escaich’s composition takes a considerably grander, more impetuous direction, boldly celebrating the Easter message with sweeping gestures that include an insistent ostinato figuration.
This reviewer was reminded throughout of the frightening majesty of Messiaen’s “Dieu parmi nous” (“God among us”) the concluding work of that composer’s sweeping Christmas suite, “La Nativité du Seigneur” (“The Birth of Our Lord.”)
The program’s first half concluded with a lustrous performance of the concluding movements of Louis Vierne’s Symphony No. 4 for Solo Organ, Op. 32 (1914). The music of this great French organist and composer is well known to organ virtuosi for its chromatic richness and majestic sweep and vision.
Mr. Escaich’s choice of the fourth movement “Romance” and the concluding “Final” proved an excellent way to wrap up his recital’s first half. The “Romance” is Vierne at his reflective best, a generally restrained (but not always) chromatic essay made magical by the lustrous, constantly changing array of pipes employed.
Painting his tones with a steady brush, Mr. Escaich gave a sensitive reading of this movement, giving the audience a glimpse into the organ’s more subtle, pastel moods.
Vierne’s “Romance” yielded to the tonal fireworks of his thrilling “Final” an oddly disjointed toccata, which Mr. Escaich performed to great effect, expertly showcasing the Rubenstein organ’s almost overwhelming power and glory.
After the intermission, Mr. Escaich changed the mood a bit, performing the three final dances of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” arranged for organ by Pierre Pincemaille. This selection was an opportunity for the soloist to exploit the surprising variety of “special effects” that can be coaxed out of a massive instrument like this one.
Tweets, flutters, tone-cluster drumbeats, unusual glissandi—all made their appearances in this trio of showpieces. Mr. Escaich seemed slightly less steady in his performance here. But that mattered very little with regard to its over all effect.
The program’s real pièce de résistance, if you will, was the much-anticipated final work: a complete, improvised four movement organ. It was based on two tunes selected before the concert by audience members who’d voted for their choices earlier via the National Symphony Orchestra’s Facebook site.
Presented to Mr. Escaich on the spot, the two tunes he was given were the famously dramatic opening passage from Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (“Thus spoke Zarathustra”) and the “Lone Ranger” theme from Rossini’s overture to “William Tell.”
The choice of this pairing was fortuitous, contrasting a slow, broad, and majestic theme with another that’s well known for its rapid, almost frantic “ride to the rescue” pace.
Mr. Escaich thought for a moment, sat down at the organ console, pre-set a couple of stops that weren’t already set, and launched with ferocity and relish, seasoned with wit and humor, into an overwhelming virtuoso exhibition of what an organist of his depth and skill can accomplish.
His first movement “Prélude” was a free form and increasingly showy set of variations on “Zarathustra,” which was followed by a playfully faster paced “Scherzo.”
Stretching the creativity envelope, he pitted these tunes against one another in the final pair of movements, the slower “Andante” and the almost dervish-paced “Rondo-Final.”
Listening carefully, you could often (though not always) discern the various elements being added in at a rapid pace by the soloist. Bits of ostinato and toccata surfaced, particularly in the final movement, seasoned with chromatic tonal combinations providing color and hue.
Best of all, Mr. Escaich tossed in numerous musical references into the mélange. Just guessing, but Messiaen’s rather distinctive palette showed up in random bars, as did an occasional passage echoing Marcel Dupré’s fleet-footed “Prelude and Fugue in G minor.” Things went so fast we could rarely confirm our suspicions, however.
After Mr. Escaich wrapped the Final with a dynamic coda, the audience erupted in an enthusiastic ovation and the artist returned to offer an encore. While we could swear we’d heard this one before, we couldn’t identify it. That’s because, as it happens, it was one final improvisation, adding a puckish exclamation point to a memorable evening.
Recital rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)