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The Music for a Great Space series continued January 13 with a performance by virtuoso organist Paul Jacobs on the Fisk organ (Op. 82) at Christ United Methodist Church in Greensboro. Jacobs, the youngest person ever appointed to a faculty position at the Juilliard School, comes with an impressive background, having performed the complete works of J.S. Bach and Oliver Messiaen several times at different locales across America. He once played the complete works of Bach in one 18-hour day – an impressive feat by any standard. Not surprisingly, he chose to devote the first half of the program to the great Leipzig master. He began with what most organists would consider an encore piece, but for Jacobs, the Sinfonia from Cantata 29 was only the beginning. It was a stirring display, demonstrating the grand jeu of the instrument. He played with dazzling speed but maintained the clarity of the line throughout and ended with a brilliant display of digital accuracy. Though this seemed like an odd selection to begin a recital, it set the tone for the rest of the evening. When the mighty, raucous applause had concluded, Jacobs introduced himself and began a miniature lecture on the next piece, the prayerful "Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ," S.639. He pointed out that this is not the virtuosic piece that the Sinfonia had been and requested no applause after its completion. He proceeded to play in a rather detached manner, leaving the listener waiting for the next note. The tempo wasn't necessarily slow, but because of the staccato style Jacobs utilized, the piece seemed to drag. However, with the use of a soft registration he evoked the desired reverent sentiment in the audience.
After another blurb on the next piece, listeners were treated to the formidable Trio Sonata in C, S.529. It is a pleasure to listen to any of this set of six trios, but they are brutal for the performer to play. With three separate voices (one each in the manuals and one in the pedal) proceeding simultaneously, it proves that the organist is the ultimate multi-tasker. Our recitalist tossed the first movement off with apparent ease, although it became hard to follow the voices in certain parts due to the rather piercing stop selection. In the second movement, marked adagio, Jacobs fell back into the same rut as in the chorale prelude – a certain detachment kept him from unifying the structure of the piece. His use of this style is obviously intentional, but it just isn't effective and left him barren in slow movements for the remainder of the concert. The trio concluded with a regal treatment of the allegro section in which the three voices were woven together into perfect unison, creating an overall stellar performance. In contrast to the delightful trio, the first half closed with the fiery Prelude and Fugue in a, S.543. Although purists would condemn him for his use of the crescendo pedal in mid-phrase, Jacobs brought this work to life with color and aplomb. It was a very Romantic reading, making the dance-like fugue in 6/8 time sound as if Liszt himself had penned it. The reentrance of the pedal into the fugue after the long manualiter section was electrifying. Near the end, Jacobs held a pedal point for an extended amount of time and then followed it with a violent flurry of notes, creating a demonic effect that brought the house to its feet.
After intermission, Jacobs gave another short talk – this practice is reminiscent of the late Virgil Fox. He then sat down to play Handel's Organ Concerto No. 1, in g, which received a straightforward interpretation without any really memorable moments with the exception of an especially "cantabile" section in the second movement. The same is true for the two Brahms chorale preludes that followed. His playing became pedantic compared to the Bach selections that highlighted the first half. The registration for these two introspective and highly spiritual works was dry and did not lend itself to the motive of the pieces. What came next, though, was an unparalleled display of raw virtuosity. Jacobs changed the printed program, which had as the last piece a Fantasy by Max Reger, and declared that he would perform instead the Duruflé Toccata. He then removed his jacket (as if to say, "Off come the gloves") and gave the excited assembly what they had been waiting for. This tour-de-force is a swirling wind, testing the limits of the King of Instruments. Jacobs rose to the occasion and sparks flew from the keyboard as he played through this difficult work with a high degree of musicianship, which is so often left out of a work that is used to demonstrate the speed and dexterity of a player. When the piece came to its triumphant conclusion, all the stops were pulled and the organ bellowed its greatest cry to signal the end of the recital – but not the end of the music, as Jacobs appropriately gave an encore. In his own words, "The evening should end as it began, with the alpha and omega of all music, Johann Sebastian Bach." And so we were treated to Bach's Fugue in D, which was filled with frivolity and just enough romanticism to make proponents of baroque performance practice cringe. With the talent and experience that Jacobs possesses, he will most certainly be counted among the top echelon – not only of organists, but of all musicians.