Dame Gillian Weir presented an organ recital at St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Friday evening as part of the annual East Carolina Religious Arts Festival. Now in its eleventh year, the Festival's organ recital has evolved into an elegant affair, featuring top-flight concert organists on the church's magnificent Fisk organ (Opus 126) in St. Paul's ample acoustical setting. Friday's performance clearly impressed the capacity crowd.
Weir's program was as multinational as it was demanding, showcasing composers from Germany, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Hungary, and Russia. Even without representative selections from her native Great Britain or the United States, her recital demonstrated a commitment to creative programming, with rarely heard works interspersed among well-known pieces. Her playing was, for the most, as fine as one could ever hope for — neither too academic nor too showy — on an organ well suited to all but two of the works. From my seat at the far end of the sanctuary, the organ's mid and low range foundation stops blossom while reeds and mixtures are somewhat suppressed. In one sense this great distance veiled the organ's sound at times where I yearned for more presence, but when Dame Weir let the "Duchess" roar and wail for a minute or more, the distance made the organ's tutti completely bearable.
All of the program's selections received a bravura treatment, whether by the performer's technical display, creative registrations, or daring tempi. In particular, Joseph Jongen's "Sonata Eroica," Sergei Slonimsky's Toccata, Oliver Messiaen's "Joie et clarté des Corps Glorieux," and Flor Peeters' Toccata, Fugue, and Hymn on "Ave maris stella" received nothing short of masterful interpretations. Weir's performance of the Jongen had all of the fire of her performance at the 1994 American Guild of Organists National Convention in Dallas; it was so good that it begged to conclude her recital rather than open it (as it did), whereby everything thereafter paled in comparison. Weir dashed off Messiaen's music as if pressed for time but successfully conveyed abundant joy and brilliance nonetheless. The Peeters "Ave maris stella" was played with such conviction that I wondered why it is not a part of the standard organ repertory. Moreover, it could easily have traded places with the Jongen as a wonderfully brief, grab-them-by-the-ears opener.
Of the recital's remaining offerings, J. S. Bach's Trio Sonata No. 4 and a suite of pieces by Jean-François Dandrieu suffered the most from a combination of factors: the artist's choice of tempi and registrations, the organ's lack of incisive presence, and my seat location. Weir wisely chose light sonorities for the Bach, with matching colors for the manuals, to facilitate her brisk allegro movements; even so, the performance was lifeless and occasionally suffered from rhythmic confusion. The quasi-pizzicato bass line in the Andante robbed the movement of harmonic interest. That Dandrieu's pieces disappointed was surprising, given the successful legacy of the organ builder's founder, Charles Brenton Fisk (1925-1983), in studying and copying the building practices of 18th century French organs. Absent were the gentile foundations and the bold reeds Fisk crafted for the University of Vermont, Burlington, in 1976 or for Christ United Methodist Church, Greensboro, in 1982. As such, Opus 126 serves French organ music of the 19th century far better than earlier French repertory. This was clearly evident in Weir's registrations for César Franck's Chorale No. 2, where the warm foundations and expressive reed choruses brought the music to life with sonorities too rarely heard in the United States. I could quibble about the absence of a voix humaine sonority in the places where Franck calls for one or bicker about the performer's clipped phrasing and pressed tempi; but there's no dispute over the potential for truly transcendent music-making when composition, organ, and performer serve one another as each did Friday evening.
While Dame Weir managed an inspired reading of Lionel Rogg's transcription of the second of Franz Liszt's Franciscan Legends for Piano ("St. Paul of Paola Walking on the Waves"), I kept looking for a more varied palette than the Fisk's tonal resources could provide. Perhaps I expected too much. I did not however have high hopes for the recital's concluding "Totentanz" by Guy Bovet, despite a rousing rendition from Weir. The clever musical quotes from Offenbach, Beethoven, and Wagner notwithstanding, the composition is more annoying than amusing; it makes more than its fair share of allusions to Petr Eben's Moto Ostinato (from Sunday Music), which would have been a stronger choice with which to end the recital.
But, no matter — the audience, which included many organist-participants in the 2007 Religious Arts Festival, responded with a standing ovation, and I returned home in awe of Weir's legendary artistry.