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On July 7, Timothy Albrecht gave a recital on the Porter Center's Jaeckel organ at Brevard College. The program involved faculty brass players from the Brevard Music Center and was presented under the auspices of the Brevard Music Festival, which continues through August 8.*
In earlier reviews, I have commented on performers whose ability to play the organ is unquestioned. Timothy Albrecht can play not only the organ but also this specific instrument, and these are by no means the same thing. I had some doubts that the Porter Center organ (pictured at http://www.brevard.edu/portercenter/about_pc.htm [inactive 7/06]) was a complete unqualified success until this recital; Albrecht's playing left no doubt that any prior apparent shortcomings were really shortcomings of performance. Excuses can be found, citing Marilyn Keiser's continuing health problems and Simon Preston's possible lack of sufficient time with the organ.
No excuse was necessary for Timothy Albrecht, whose performance was both musically flawless and completely aligned with the personality of the Jaeckel organ and the acoustics of the Porter Center Concert Hall. This superlative performance joins my short-list of a lifetime's best performances and emphasizes the delight, joy, power, and wonder that make live performance of good organ music by good performers, on good instruments, not DDD recordings, the touchstone for excellence.
Albrecht was joined for several of the pieces by a brass sextet composed of members of the Brevard Music Center faculty - William Campbell and Mark Schubert, trumpets, Dan Satterwhite and William Zehfuss, trombones, John Ericson, horn, and Michael Grose, tuba. While competent, this group lacked the polish of Albrecht, and the reason for their appearance on this bill not clear.
Brass and organ began with the "Solemn Entry" of Richard Strauss, a piece that seemed to have no musical purpose on this program but to allow the brass and organ to play together. A straight organ recital, with a brass concert another night, would have been a much better use of these important resources. There were serious balance problems: the brass consistently overpowered the organ (and not because of a lack of volume from the organ or a poor choice of registration).
The next piece was in Albrecht's specialty composition form that he calls "Grace Notes." This seems to be Albrecht's successor to the older form of chorale prelude, but with much more option in the choice of the theme, not limited to the sacred, and without any limitations of humor. The piece in question is a "grace note" on Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," with the theme in the pedals and Albrecht's characteristic individual accompaniment in the manuals. The accompaniment to this piece was highly figured and mostly very straight, rhythmically. But when the rhythm was not straight, it had delightfully quirky syncopations that made your heart stop - or make you wonder just for a minute if Albrecht's heart had stopped! There are also several three-against-two passages in this piece, three-against-twos that were just perfect. Watching the video screen (organists are given CCTV treatment there), one knew exactly when the Cymbelstern or Vogelgesang was to enter: they were the only two foot levers that Albrecht always looked for, positioned off to the left side of the pedals.
The centerpiece of the first half of the concert was Bach's Prelude and Fugue in G, S.541, one of the sprightliest of Bach's large prelude-and-fugue pairings. Although the projection video of the performer is distracting, it did provide a chance to observe Albrecht's tranquil stance and languid eurhythmics. In best baroque style, he sits largely motionless on the bench, playing from his elbows and wrists, with gentle swaying completely unlike the cartoon stereotype of the gyrating longhair conductor. One of the features of Albrecht's distinctive style is the linear unity he can bring to a sectional, terraced-dynamic piece without disrupting the sections and dynamics. The manual shifts are just where they are supposed to be; the little lifts before a new section are always there but, at the same time, the unity of the piece lofts up and over, tying it all together. Albrecht's rhythm is always "going somewhere," not necessarily accelerating, but possessed of a clear sense of purpose. This was especially nice in the drum-like repetitions of the fugue. Albrecht did a juicy little improvisation at the fermata near the end of the fugue. He mentioned beforehand his debt to the D-minor Toccata and Fugue for some of the material, but the crispness and perfect sense of timing were all his own.
The brass returned to the stage to join Albrecht in what was their best work of the evening, Giovanni Gabrieli's "Canzon primi toni." The players produced a punchy organistic sound when playing alone. With the organ there were balance problems, with brass too loud; a little bit of tuba goes a long way in that room. Even with the video screen to watch, the brass didn't get their last big entry with the organ. The balcony of the hall, with the organ and brass separated as much as possible and someone to give the tactus when needed, would have been a better use of the space than having the brass on stage immediately under the organ Ruckpositiv.
Grace note "I Danced in the Morning" paid strong homage to Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" in the accompaniment and would greatly enrich any church that would allow it to be played; grace note "A Mighty Fortress" was jazzy and made good use of Albrecht-style feints and intentional pauses.
Following intermission - it certainly would be nice if Porter Center had a warning chime that sounded in the lobby, restrooms and concert hall - brass and organ combined again to play Eugene Gigout's "Grand Choeur Dialogue," which is very French and was very loud, with the brass brassy but too imprecise.
Then came three more grace notes: "The Ashgrove," "Jesus Loves Me," and "Straf mich nicht." The Albrecht arrangement of "Jesus Loves Me" gives it all the strong musical qualities that it lacks in its Sunday school form and ends with a delicate little suspension that Albrecht played in a most delicate little way. "Straf mich nicht" was Ivesian in its humor; Albrecht's registration and performance showed wit as well as skill.
Both halves of the performance were nicely arranged, with each having its centerpiece; in the second half it was Bach's "Dorian" Toccata, S.538, powerfully (but not painfully) delivered.
Then came the Schubler chorale "Wake, Awake," S.645, with a very gentle Baroque registration on a vox humana-type stop (not, thankfully, a trumpet).
The Toccata from Symphony V of Charles-Marie Widor would have been better without the brass taking the big melody. Albrect's playing was here, as in the whole concert, quite clean. Sadly, the brass did not find the example contagious. True, this is not part of standard brass players' repertoire, but their performance was ragged and had intonation problems. This was not good, as the arrangement gave the impression that it was being foisted off on the audience to showcase the brass players.
After a standing ovation with much whistling and cheering, Albrecht returned and played for an encore the Sinfonia from Bach's Cantata 29. And that was as good as the rest of this excellent program.
* CVNC regrets the delay in posting this review.