To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the organ by Richards, Fowkes & Company, the First Presbyterian Church brought in the incomparable Dutch organist Sietze de Vries to play. The organ also is incomparable. Although the North Carolina Piedmont has a number of fine organs, there is nothing like it in eastern North Carolina; its closest peer is at Duke Divinity School. You can read about Richards, Fowkes, including a stoplist for the organ, here. The high point of de Vries' accomplishments so far is winning the international improvisation competition in Haarlem in 2002.
The program began with a brief responsorial reading and congregational singing of "When in Our Music God Is Glorified," to Charles Villiers Stanford's "Engelberg," with organ accompaniment by the church organist, Virginia Vance. Vance chose, wisely, in view of what was coming, to stick to the straightforward hymnal version of Engelberg. The singing was lusty, as can be expected when one of the sponsors of the recital is the Central NC chapter of the American Guild of Organists.
The organ is a perfect instrument for the North German styles of Dietrich Buxtehude and J.S. Bach. The first part of the program consisted of Buxtehude's Praeludium in G minor (BuxWV 148) and his Chorale Prelude on "Wie schön leuctet der Morgenstern," and Bach's Chorale Preludes "Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein" and "Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten," S.641 and S.642, and the Toccata in C Major, S.564.
The Buxtehude Praeludium began quite gently, very clean and legato; the fugue, especially when stated in the pedals, was exceptionally clean. There was great clarity of registration and effortless registration changes even though this organ is devoid of pistons or toe studs. With so much clarity and so much going on in the music, it was too much to be taken in all in one hearing.
"Morgenstern" was flawless and exciting, a complete joy from start to finish. Instead of the usual academic way of stating the chorale first, de Vries played the Buxtehude, then moved directly into his own free version of the chorale, just as if a congregation had heard the prelude and stood up to sing.
For the Bach chorale preludes, de Vries played simple versions of the chorale first. His distinctive style is to be extremely flexible over a rock-steady rhythm, steady enough for dancing, but with an expression that is exciting and rewarding.
The Toccata section of S.564 was played on a big principal chorus, with an even bigger sound in the pedal that made the pedal entries very clear and very funny. De Vries's strong drive was especially obvious in the pedal solos. At the end of the melismatic part of the Adagio, de Vries made the transition into the close harmony section with a rolled chord that was much more effective than the usual crash. The fugue made excellent sense out of what in other hands is frequently a very trite subject.
For the second half, de Vries improvised "in baroque style." Both subjects were handed to him by members of the audience. The first was "Now thank we all our God." Given the venerable nature of this melody, we may be forgiven if we suspect that de Vries has thought about this as a subject in the past. Pachelbel has a number of sets of variations in which it is clear that any clever performer can have perhaps six formulaic solutions that can be wrapped around any tune. Nevertheless, de Vries used no such fallback. He said he would play "perhaps eight or nine variations," but by the time he had finished playing three verses for congregational singing he had already worked off three! That was nothing, however, to what was to come. There was 1. A two-part fugal accompaniment with cantus firmus in the pedal; 2. A toccata on the reeds with a c.f.; 3. In the style of Bach's transcriptions of Italian concerti grossi; 4. A la Buxtehude's Morgenstern; 5. A bouncy ditty for the hands with the c.f. in the pedals; 6. Another very different concerto grosso; 7. A fugal treatment on the full Great and c.f. in the pedals very much in the style of Buxtehude; and 8. a sparkling elaboration of the standard tune which could have lead right into congregational singing.
The second melody offered was "Liebster Jesu," another that de Vries could be expected to know. The prelude began like Brahms's "Est ist ein Ros'" and built stronger and stronger, then an even more powerful fugue that included the c.f. in the top voice played with his little finger.
It is rare that large-scale improvisation is heard in this country, and hardly ever to this high standard. It's magic, fantastic, and we have to take in as much as we can, because the next time it will be different. De Vries is magic and a dream.