Music for a Great Space finished its 25th anniversary season in grand style with resident organist André Lash. For a concert series that began with the intent of celebrating the crisp acoustic and glorious Fisk organ at Greensboro's Christ United Methodist, there could have been no better way of reaffirming the success of the series.
As a performer, Lash has many fine qualities that shouldn't surprise CVNC readers: he has a consummate technique, a secure memory, and expressive command over tempo and articulation.
In a state filled to the brim with great organs and great organists, what sets Lash apart is his unmatched knowledge of the repertoire and his ability to bring that repertoire to life through stunning registrational choices. Lash knows the Fisk Opus 82 inside and out, and even on a program that spanned nearly 700 years of organ music, he made the organ sound at home on each and every piece.
Beginning with Vincent Lübeck's Praeludium in E, Lash demonstrated the Fisk's backbone: its shimmering, articulate, and supple principal chorus. These are the stops that give the organ its characteristic sound. The organ's two 8-foot principals were lush but perfectly clear, with a gorgeous powdery texture in the high end. The upper work (a group of high-pitched stops tuned to overtones) was powerful but never shrill.
For chorus reeds, the organist has a choice between a warm German trumpet or a pair of fiery French trumpets. For the Lübeck, the first choice provided a subtle growl beneath the principal ensemble.
This organ has a punchiness and nimbleness in its power. The supple, taut feeling is enhanced by the organ's flexible wind arrangement. In organs of the 18th century and before, the air pressure powering the pipes was slightly unsteady, changing as more or fewer notes were played. A change in the available pressure results in a slight dip in the volume of the sustained notes. Properly controlled, this feature is actually desirable, adding contrast and clarity to dense polyphony. The Fisk's flexible wind (which can be stabilized for later repertoire) allowed Lash to move quickly through even dense passages in the Lübeck.
The evening's second selection was almost certainly the earliest organ composition MGS listeners have ever heard in concert, the delightful "Retrouvé" from the Robertsbridge Codex. This manuscript from c.1360 is English in origin and contains the earliest Western keyboard music.
Lash gave a brief introduction, explaining that organs of the period had only a few registrational choices. He decided to use all of them in the "Retrouvé," offering listeners some welcome changes of color through the many structural repetitions. Beginning with a lone but lovely flute stop, Lash made his way through the brisk hockets and achingly beautiful parallel 5ths. Next in the color palette was a piquant vox humana, a short-scale reed stop so named for the distinctive vowel sounds that emerge from its unique overtone structure. Then came the softer of the organ's two 8-foot principals, the lovely Prestant. For the climax, Lash pulled together a fine imitation of the medieval "Blockwerk" (complete principal chorus) by adding some transparent upper work to the foundations.
The journey through time continued with a pair of compositions from the Iberian peninsula. This repertoire is Lash's particular specialty and constituted the subject of his doctoral dissertation. Francisco Correa de Arauxo's "Tiento LXIII" demonstrated the organ's singing and dignified Cornet, and also Lash's beautifully elegant ornamentation.
The "Batalha de 6. Tom" by the later Pedro de Araujo gave listeners their first chance to hear the Fisk's stunning reed chorus. Crowning the organ's reed stops is a set of horizontal trumpets ("en chamade") emerging from the organ case. A gift from CUMC's Grove family in memory of Ruth Grove, the trumpets are excellently voiced, sitting above the ensemble without overwhelming it.
The last piece before the intermission was Bach's famous Toccata and Fugue in F, S.540. At first, Lash's somewhat deliberate tempo felt underpowered compared to other performances. But this thoughtful performer had careful designs in store. The strict double fugue, normally completely overshadowed by the brilliant prelude, began at a confident tempo. As the second subject emerged, Lash's planning became clear: the running 16th notes came streaming forth at the same tempo as the prelude, binding the whole piece together.
As opposed to its normal role of an obligatory addendum to the prelude, the fugue had triumphant structural authority. This interpretation, because of Lash's patience and humility, was the finest I've ever heard.
Closing out the program were two larger and more recent pieces, Jehan Alain's Trois Danses from 1939, and Max Reger's "Phantasie über 'Wie Schön leucht’ uns der Morgenstern'" from 1899.
A kaleidoscopic piece, the Alain demonstrated the organ's lush romantic colors. Notable were the string stops, two ranks of pipes tuned slightly apart so that they undulate and shimmer. The audience was treated to an interesting (though unplanned) effect when one of Lash's assistants failed to pull a string stop out completely. Starved of wind pressure, the pipes whinnied weakly below pitch, beating against the properly-tuned pipes in fine imitation of a Wurlitzer in need of maintenance. The mistake was soon rectified, but I thought the timbre was engaging and appropriate while it lasted.
Lash's intense and historically sweeping program ended with the densest piece of them all, the Reger "Phantasie." If there was a fault on the program, this piece was it. Reger was a master of the large-scale organ fantasy, and Lash performed this difficult piece brilliantly, but at the close of a concert full of such varied and colorful pieces, the Reger felt long-winded and stiff.
Perhaps the concert needed a firm and rigorous piece to ground it, and perhaps my ears were just a little tired from the already explosive journey through time and color. The audience certainly didn't seem to mind the Reger, and the closing apotheosis of the chorale theme was duly rousing. Lash and the Fisk organ that he so masterfully played are two of Greensboro's musical treasures, and together they were the perfect close to MGS triumphant 25th anniversary season. Bravi to all involved in MGS – we look forward to another 25 years!