Updated: Feb 6, 2019
There is something about the organ, well played, that is deeply moving, and even when the music is exuberant and huge, still soothing. It’s rather like watching elephants at play. The organ is a colossal instrument when compared to the piano, or even more so, the flute! Yet a carefully built instrument in the hands of a master artist makes music that is exquisitely graceful. The result is a dance of giants, all profoundly intelligent, highly sensitive and precisely attuned to each other. This unity of purpose and execution is because, though the instrument has many voices, they are all controlled by one musician, the organist.
I recently attended an organ recital at St. Thomas Anglican Church in Belleville by Matthieu Latreille. Matthieu Latreille is an accomplished musician. Completing his professional training at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal, he is a prize-winning artist with numerous accolades and distinctions to his name. He is one of St. Thomas' two resident organists and when I heard that he was doing a solo recital on the organ at St. Thomas' Anglican I made sure to attend. I was not disappointed!
The organ at St. Thomas' was built in 1977 by Gabriel Kney. It is a mechanical action pipe organ. This means that when the player depresses the key a valve underneath the pipe associated with that key opens allowing air to enter the pipe and create sound. The player can thus not only control when the pipe sounds but also, to some extent, the amount of air entering the pipe. The happy result is in a greater capability for variety in articulation and control over the timing of when the pipe speaks than in electronic pneumatic actions, the sort more commonly found in Ontario sanctuaries. The keys in this type of organ are connected to the valves by slender rods called "trackers". So an organ with this set up is often referred to as a "tracker organ." The instrument at St. Thomas' Anglican is a tracker with 19 ranks (about 1,000 pipes) and 14 stops.
Matthieu's program was presented as "A Musical Journey of Germany" and featured works by J.S. Bach, Felix Mendelsohn Bartholdy, Maximillian Reger and Gustav Merkel. Matthieu opened with a lucid performance of Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C minor. His treatment of the Fugue demonstrated his mastery of the particular capability of the tracker-organ action to deliver clearly articulated melodic lines. It was clear from the opening notes that before the recital was over we would all know the meaning of voice-leading.* (See below for unfamiliar terms defined). The remainder of the Bach selections were treated with similar care. Overall this playing was thoughtful and refreshing.
The series of Bach selections were followed by Mendelsohn's Prelude and Fugue in C minor, Op. 37, No. 1. Bach's influence on Mendelssohn is evident in this composition, but the writing is anything but slavishly imitative. Matthieu chose to use slightly more complex timbres here to bring out the vitality of the Prelude, but then wisely reduced the sound to convey the more intimate nature of the Fugue.
The music of Max Reger is generally dense in sound and in its time was found to be demanding and difficult for listeners. Matthieu's treatment of the Canzonetta from the Six Trios, Op. 47, No. 3 however was presented with effective clarity. This was achieved in part by his choice of registration (the sounds he asked from the organ, see Registration* below) and his capable handling of the tracker organ's sensitivity to touch.
To close the recital Matthieu offered a work by Gustav Merkel. Merkel, like all of the composers on this program, and most organists, was greatly influenced by Bach. Like the others, he also strove to bring the great master's work to the audiences of his generation. Despite opening up the full organ for this final composition and giving us all that nerve shaking brain vibrating glory hallelujah isn't it great to be alive organ experience, Matthieu was once again able to keep the musical elements in focus. The happy result was that the harmonies remained distinct, the melodic arc clear, the rhythmic pulse uncluttered. He did this with thoughtful management of registration options and also precise pedal and finger work such that the sheer sound of the instrument did not overtake the compositional balance of the writing.
This was an excellent performance all the way through. I utterly enjoyed every second of the hour. Matthieu is an extremely interesting musician and a hidden treasure in the Quinte musical landscape. Well, maybe not so hidden anymore! As the music directors of St. Thomas' Anglican, Matthieu and his partner Francine Nguyen-Savaria, an equally accomplished musician, not only perform regularly themselves to a growing and dedicated audience, but have developed a broad based classical music series devoted to bringing excellent professional musicians to Belleville audiences.
The Music at St. Thomas Series produces classical music events on the third Sunday each month at St. Thomas's church. The organ concert was part of this series. Information about upcoming events and the artists Matthieu and Francine have engaged can be found at http://stthomasbelleville.ca/music-series.php . Matthieu and Francine both feature in this programming. If last Sunday's recital was any indication of what we can expect to hear from future performances, then I do not think it will be long before both of these musicians are well known locally and beyond. Kudos to St. Thomas Anglican Church for supporting this initiative and providing a home for such excellent music making!
**In this review I have had recourse to some technical language about organ playing. Definitions can be found below. Also, Matthieu kindly shared the text for his program notes, delivered orally at the recital, with me. They follow the definitions and include further explanatory notes.
Registration* refers to the choice of stops, or sounds, an organist uses on the organ to produce a particular sound. The word "stop" is used because the sound the organ makes is produced by air going through a pipe. The organist makes the organ sound by pressing a key which "un-stops" the airflow to the pipe associated with that key. The organist can also choose which set or "rank" of pipes receives air. Each rank of pipes has its own particular sound. The organist decides what kind of sound he wants for a particular passage or piece then pulls out the "stop" that allows air to go through the pipes that produce that sound. Choosing effective registrations as a result is as important to the organist's performance as playing the right notes in the right time. Sometimes registrations are indicated by the composer, but not all organs have the same sounds available so even in this case the organist's discretion plays a huge role in determining the sound of the performance.
Voice leading * refers to the linear progression of melodic lines in music, particularly in polyphonic music, music where multiple voices present the melody, rather than homophonic music, where a single melody sounds over a harmonic accompaniment. The cool thing about polyphony is that while all this melody is happening in different voices (think of singing Row Row Row Your Boat as a round as a child) the writing is designed such that it also makes sense harmonically. That means that all the different notes going along on their own to make a nice tune also sound good together with the other voices singing their own nice tune. Bach's writing brought this art to a new level. After he died in 1685, music took a new direction based on his mastery of the harmonies arising from such perfect polyphonic voice leading. Cool eh? The music of Johann Sebastian Bach is regarded as the foundation of all that followed and every great composer and musician studies and is influenced by his work.
Program Notes by Matthieu Latreille
J.S. Bach, Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV 546
Matthieu opened his recital with a performance of Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C minor. After playing the piece, he told us a bit about the great master.
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany in 1685. He was organist, choirmaster, and a prolific composer. He was married twice and had 18 children. He died in Leipzig in 1750. His magnificent works are still an inspiration for those who work in the field of sacred music.
This musical journey of Germany started in Leipzig where Bach spent the last twenty-seven years of his life. The Prelude in C minor is clearly a mature work. Many of his works use an impressive mathematical symbolism, while being rich harmonically. The work is full of symbols: the laborious ascension towards the sky, the fall of humanity, the triplets representing the Trinity... The prelude has 144 measures divided into 6 groups of 24, 24 being the apocalyptic number of the sky and the earth, and the 6th section is a repetition of the first, symbolizing eternity. The fugue would have been written earlier when Bach was a court musician in Weimar. The fugue's subject uses the same chords as the opening of the prelude.
I asked Matthieu to share the registrations* he used for each of the selections he performed.
Registration: I used a plenum for the Prelude in C minor by Bach. For the fugue, I played the first section on the Great's principals 8' and 4'; I played the middle section on the Swell small plenum; and I played the last section on the great plenum, adding the Trumpet for the last entrance of the subject played by the feet.
J.S.Bach, An Wasserflüssen Babylon, Chorale Prelude, BWV 653b
Matthieu introduced Bach's “An Wasserflüssen Babylon” with reference to Johann Adam Reincken, (1623-1722) a senior contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) who is believed to been an important formative influence on the younger composer.
The chorale prelude “An Wasserflüssen Babylon” was probably composed at the time when Bach was living in Köthen. In 1720, he went to St. Catherine's Church in Hamburg, and there, he played for two hours for the organist Johann Adam Reinken. The latter was 97 years old and still playing. That church had a 58-stop organ which makes it the largest organ Bach has ever played. One of the things that Bach played for Reinken was a thirty-minute long improvisation on the chorale “An Wasserflüssen Babylon.“ Reinken said afterwards “I thought that this art was dead, but I see that it is still living in you.”
Bach composed three versions of this chorale prelude. This version uses the double pedal technique, which is not frequently used in Bach's chorale preludes. This is a five-part work. The theme is played on its own keyboard, two accompaniment parts are played by the left hand, and two parts by the feet.
The chorale is based on the theme of a Lutheran adaptation of Psalm 137 telling the story of the Jews' exile after the destruction of Jerusalem.
Registration: For “An Wasserflüssen Babylon,” the solo was the Swell's Gedeckt 8 with the Principal 2 and the Tremulant. The accompaniment was the Flute 8'.
J.S.Bach, Prelude and Fugue in C major, BWV 531
The Prelude and Fugue in C major is a youth work and one can hear the influence of other composers such as Buxtehude, Böhm and Lübeck. It was probably composed when Bach was living in Lüneburg or Arnstadt. The pedal solo at the beginning is intended to highlight the virtuosity of the performer. This reminds me of this story: Bach was asked to examine the new organ in the St. Martin's Church in Kassel. There, he started his improvisation with a pedal solo which made an impression on the prince of Hesse-Kassel who was present. The latter especially admired and complimented Bach on his pedal playing, removing a ring from his finger and presenting it to Bach. This is the first prelude and fugue that I've learned during my studies at the Conservatoire. I am glad to play it again after 18 years.
Registration I played the Prelude in C major on principals, and the fugue was played on a plenum with the Trumpet.
J. S. Bach, Vivace from Sonata III, BWV, 527
Bach probably wrote his trio sonatas during his first years in Leipzig. They were written to train his son, Wilhelm Friedmann, who became a great organist. A trio sonata on the organ is a trio played by a single instrumentalist. It's as if there were 3 different instruments: one played by the left hand, one played by the right hand, and one played by the feet.
Registration: I used flutes 8' and 2' for the right hand; flutes 8' and 4' along the Salizional for the left hand; and the Principal 8' for the pedal.
J.S. Bach, Von Gott will ich nicht lassen (I Will Not Forsake the Lord) BWV 658
The chorale prelude “Von Gott will ich nicht lassen” was probably also composed in Leipzig. It is one of the “Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes.” A chorale is a Lutheran hymn. A chorale prelude for organ is a composition based on the hymn tune. Some musicologists think that the chorale preludes were used to introduce the hymns; some others think that they were a solo piece that could be played, for instance, during communion. For this chorale prelude, the theme is played by the feet while the hands play the accompaniment. For the accompaniment, I'm going to use flute stops, and for the theme, I'm going to use the pipes that you can see from outside the organ. This instrument has around 1000 pipes, so you cannot see most of them.
Registration: The solo was the Principal 8' (played by the feet), accompanied by flutes 8' and 4' by the hands.
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Prelude and Fugue in C minor, Op. 37, No. 1
Mendelssohn spent part of his life in Leipzig where this work was composed. Raised in a Jewish family converted to Protestantism, Mendelssohn enjoyed a very thorough education, making him one of the most cultured personalities of his time. He was one of the pioneers of the revival of Bach's music. He performed those works in Germany, Paris and London. His prelude and fugue in C minor was dedicated to Thomas Atwood, organist at St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
Registration: The Prelude was played on a plenum, but this time with the Schalmei added to it. I kept the Schalmei for the fugue along with principal stops, but I closed the swell box.
Maximilian Reger, Canzonetta from Six Trios, Op. 47, No. 3
The Canzonetta by Max Reger was composed in Weiden in 1900. This Bavarian composer wrote quickly and without regret, which explains his immense catalog. Prolific as a composer, conductor and pianist, Reger died at forty-three years old of a cardiac paralysis. The Canzonetta is part of a collection of six trios written for didactic purposes. This piece, however, is not a proper trio, like those written by Bach, because it has 4 voices, but it is performed on 2 keyboards and the pedalboard. The solo will showcase one of the two reed-stops this organ has. Some organs have reed-stops like an oboe or a clarinet, but since this organ is in the baroque style it has a trumpet and a shawm (Schalmei in German). A shawm is a double-reed woodwind instrument which was popular in Europe during the medieval and Renaissance periods.
Registration: I used the Schalmei again for the Canzonetta by Max Reger, but this time as a solo stop accompanied by the Flute 8'.
Gusta Wolf Merkel, "Allegro maestoso" from Fantasia and Fugue in C major Op. 5
The last work of the program was the first movement of a three-movement Fantasia and Fugue by Gustav Merkel. It was composed in Dresden. Merkel was an organ teacher at the Royal Conservatory of Germany, and during his thirty-year career as a performer and composer, he strove to spread the work of Johann Sebastian Bach. His work is inspired by the work of the master. Between Reger and Mendelssohn, Merkel was forgotten, which is a shame, because his work, more romantic and modern than Mendelssohn's, has enviable qualities. Francine** and I are by the way working on his outstanding sonata for organ duo that we might present during the next season of Music at St. Thomas'.
Registration: I started on a full organ and followed the composer's indications as to when push in or out the reeds and mixtures.
**Francine Nguyen-Savaria, also director of music at St. Thomas Anglican Church, Belleville
Music at St. Thomas’” produces seven events per year, from October to April, on the third Sunday of each month at St. Thomas’ Anglican Church in Belleville. Since 2014, the series is fulfilling its artistic mission, sharing with the Quinte community the beauty of great classical music, and the artistry of exceptional and renowned musicians. The series hosts performances with high quality standards, like those that one can attend in concert halls of large urban centres. Admission is by donation, making these concerts accessible to all.
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