James Young – Review of Seeking, Teasing, Touching, Escaping

Pacific Baroque Festival
Seeking, Teasing, Touching, Escaping
Austrian Organ Music of The Baroque
Reinhard Jaud (organ) Victoria Children’s Choir

Christ Church Cathedral
February 3, 2010

by James Young

The Pacific Baroque Festival at Christ Church Cathedral

The Pacific Baroque Festival at Christ Church Cathedral

Not the least of the reasons to look forward to the Pacific Baroque Festival is that it provides Victoria audiences with an all too infrequent opportunity to hear the Hellmuth Wolff organ in Christ Church Cathedral. As I have had occasion to remark before, this truly wonderful instrument makes the Cathedral, not always a forgiving space for music, positively glow. The theme for this year’s Festival is music from the Imperial Austrian court. By a happy coincidence, the Wolff organ is based on South German instruments of the baroque period. Consequently, it is precisely the instrument to showcase Austrian music of the period. (Most of the composers represented on the programme were associated with the Imperial court in Vienna.)

The programme unfolded chronologically, beginning with three works by Johann Jakob Froberger. Although Froberger is best remembered today for his development of dance movements and the keyboard suite, this evening we heard his Toccata II, Canzon V and Ricercar V. Right from the beginning, Jaud established his modus operandi: simple, unfussy choices of registration combined with good taste. The results were immediately pleasing. The Canzon was pleasingly delicate and the Ricercar was contemplative and elegant.

Next up was an unusual treat. I hear a lot of baroque music – some would say too much – and I have never heard anything quite like this. It seems that the late 17th century saw a brief flourishing of works in the “alternative style:” settings of the Magnificat in which odd-numbered verse are sung and even numbered verses are played on the organ. Singing from the organ loft, the Victoria Children’s Choir sang a plain chant antiphon, and then joined in Johann Kaspar Kerll’s Magnificat. The choir produced a sound that was pure, ethereal, mysterious and gorgeous. While the choir parts are simple chant, the organ bits are variations on the chant melodies. Jaud continued his understated approach to the music, at least up to the final part, when he opened up a few stops and gave it a bit of welly.

Next up was an organ chorale (Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern/How brightly shines the morning star) by Johann Pachabel. To my mind, this was one of the highlights of the performance. For the first time this evening, the pedals made their appearance, providing a reedy accompaniment for the fluty manuals. The result tugged at my heart from the opening notes: touching music touchingly rendered. The ending, featuring the zimbelstern accessory, was nothing short of magical. (The zimbelstern is a series of bells on a wheel. An airstream rotates the bells causing them to contact a brass striker and sound. The use of the zimbelstern was particularly associated with Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern during the baroque period.)

Two more pieces by Pachabel ensued: the Ciacona in d minor and the chorale nun lob mein Seel den Herren/Praise the Lord, my soul. The Ciacona featured an elaborate structure soaring over a ground bass played on the pedals. The chorale was given suitably celebratory, indeed, laudatory rendition that was completing thrilling.

The first half concluded with a grand and imposing reading of a toccata by Georg Muffat. Another toccata by Muffat opened the second half, its bright and pulsating sound immediately drawing the audience back into the moment.

Then the VCC returned with another antiphon and another piece in the alternative style, this time by Gottlieb Muffat, son of the better known – at least in baroque music circles – Georg. Again the VCC sang with an impressive sense of style that any choir – children’s or adult, amateur or professional – could envy. The Latin pronunciation was excellent. As I have said before (the line is too good not to use again) I have no idea how Madeleine Humer can make children sing so well when she isn’t allowed to flog them.

The penultimate set on the programme featured a series of works (a fugue and three preludes) by Johann Georg Alberchtsberger. Alberchtsberger owes what little name-recognition he still possesses to the fact that the young Beethoven was for a short time his student. Upon completing his studies with Alberchtsberger, Beethoven remarked that, “Patience, diligence, persistence, and sincerity will lead to success.” This is true, of course, but one worries about the compositions of a man who could make Beethoven, of all people, say it. Consequently, I was not hopeful when we came to this point in programme.

I needn’t have worried. In fact, I was quite pleasantly surprised. The compositions were rather conservative in style: they could easily have been composed 50 years earlier. But Alberchtsberger’s works proved to be poised, highly musical pieces full of charm and invention. Jaud was a convincing exponent of the works, giving thoughtful and nuanced performances.

The evening concluded with a Präludium e Fuga in D Major by Josef Seger. The bold prelude and nimble fugue provided a fitting climax to the evening.

This was a thoroughly satisfying evening of music making. Jaud is an undoubted and perhaps unsurpassed authority on the repertoire represented on this programme. The Christ Church organ gave him a worthy instrument for his artistry. The innovative programming is typical of the Pacific Baroque Festival, which has a history now of bringing beautiful but neglected music to life. And the VCC was simply magical. Victoria audiences have another opportunity to hear the choir on Saturday night, performing Biber’s glorious Requiem with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra.