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On Friday, April 2, Music for a Great Space presented Eastman School of Music faculty member David Higgs in an engaging organ recital at Greensboro's Christ United Methodist Church. Higgs's program clearly maintained the distinguished tradition established by a long roster of premiere national and international artists who have played on this series. The recital exhibited highly musical playing while showing off to good advantage the three-manual Fisk organ (1982) in the church's spacious sanctuary.
The program's first two selections juxtaposed an "early" composition with a recently-composed work while also demonstrating the Fisk's range of sensitivity to vastly different repertory. South German composer Georg Muffat's Toccata prima (1690) was given the grand treatment with liberal use of pedal (including the 32' Bourdon) to reinforce the bass and harmonic structure, along with stark manual changes to delineate the sections. Estonian Arvo Pärt's Annum Per Annum is arranged as a suite based on the five ordinaries of the Mass. The movements proceed a bit like variations on minimalist material, with the "Sanctus" serving as a climax and an introduction and conclusion providing memorable bookends. Though only 24 years in existence, this composition is destined to remain in the canon of organ literature, largely through its accessible and innovative language.
Johann Sebastian Bach was represented not by the requisite prelude-and-fugue type of composition but by the tricky Trio Sonata in C, S.529. Thoroughly instrumental in nature, Bach's six trio sonatas, written for his organist-son Wilhelm Friedman Bach, are essentially adaptations of the trio ensemble - two equal melody instruments and basso continuo played typically by cello and harpsichord - demanding utmost accuracy and independence among two manuals and pedalboard and exposing any weaknesses. The first half of the program closed on a light note with Lefébure-Wély's Bolero de Concert.
The second half contained two very short preludes by Johann Christian Kittel, one of the last students of J.S. Bach. The remainder of the half belonged to Julius Reubke's mammoth Sonata on the 94th Psalm, a virtuosic work in the manner of Franz Liszt, of whom Reubke was a protégé. Overall, the program showed wonderful balance between levity and seriousness without any portion feeling overly long or disappointingly short.
Masterful programming is but one reason Higgs stood out at Christ Church. This artist knows how to make music out of nearly anything he chooses. He accomplishes this through exact articulation, exquisite timing, and sensitive and sensible registration. Higgs played without having a score in front of him (except for the Pärt); thus, his performances went beyond mere reading of the music and into thorough interpretation and engagement. The result was a compelling and confident performance. I especially take my hat off to how he used the Fisk organ, employing good imagination and taste in his registrations and using the organ's flexible wind to excellent advantage. The Swell division's Vox humana (a stop imitating the timbre of the human voice) made two appearances sans tremblant that exhibited this stop's flexibility and musicality under Higgs's fingers.
If I have any reservations, they amount to minor quibbling over two finer points of Higgs's playing. The first concerns the degree of elasticity he brought to his playing. His variable pacing in the Lefébure-Wély Bolero contributed a nice additional humor to the music. However, the relentless push-me/pull-me in the slow second movement of the Bach sonata went past the breaking point. Likewise, the tempo rubato in the third movement robbed the movement of some of the solidity that Higgs gave to the opening Allegro. Whenever he struck a good balance between rhythmic freedom and metronomic adherence, the music danced and flowed effortlessly.
My second point of apprehension occurred at the conclusion of the Reubke. I longed for more drive as the second fugal section progressed through its extensive passage of sequences. There is, in fact, a metrical conversion from the Sonata's penultimate section to the final one, which many organists - including fine players like Higgs - either overlook or ignore. The result is a conclusion that sounds mechanical and predictable, devoid of a greater sense of the psalm's reference to God's overwhelming judgment, even if it is played at the speed of light.
Higgs's interpretation nonetheless brought the audience to its feet in immense appreciation and admiration, and with good reason. As exciting and accurate as Higgs was, he demonstrated restraint in tempi and registration and convinced this listener how well the Fisk was up to the challenge. While Higgs did not have the tonal resources that John Scott Whiteley had when the latter performed the same work on the large Létourneau organ in Greensboro's First Presbyterian Church last November, the Christ Church audience heard a seamless management of registration - no small thanks to a pair of alert assistants - and beautiful control of the work's expressive demands. The forte and fortissimo sections were registered with reeds but without mixtures, thus giving ample room for the music to build to its final climax without tiring the ears of listeners. Moreover, the Fisk's softer sonorities really came through in the opening and third sections. Others might argue otherwise, but I heard plenty of Lieblichkeit in the organ's flute and string ranks, defying assertions that Reubke's Sonata requires an oversized organ to do it justice.
For an encore, Higgs played Robert Schumann's B-minor Canon with all the precision and clarity we came to expect throughout the evening. A perilous piece in any context, Higgs's choice of the Schumann as a nightcap following the towering Sonata further showcased his mastery of the art of programming and performance. Bravo!