Concerts deliver style and substance

Review: Expressive organist Marie-Claire Alain and the Washington Bach Consort played beautiful programs Friday and Saturday.

March 04, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Style is an elusive quality in music, but you always know it when you hear it. And you couldn't miss all the style in two exceptional concerts over the weekend -- Marie-Claire Alain's organ recital at the Peabody Institute and the Washington Bach Consort's presentation of the St. Matthew Passion at Goucher College.

Alain, at 75 the veritable dean of organists, exudes authority whenever she plays. It's not just a matter of faithfulness to composers and scores; other musicians can obviously claim that. And it's a not about flawless technique, either; Alain was not necessarily note-perfect throughout her program Friday evening in Griswold Hall.

What counts is the extra degree of expression in her work, the level of taste and involvement -- style.

This was particularly evident in Alain's performance of Cesar Franck's Prelude, fugue et variation. She gave the music a gentle rhythmic propulsion; her phrasing had a disarming naturalness that revealed the considerable charm in the piece. There were similar traits in the organist's approach to Bach; no grandiose statements, no overbearing application of the instrument's power, everything in proportion. The music danced.

Colorful works from the French baroque by Louis Marchand and Jean-Francois Dandrieu era emerged with abundant character and dynamic shading.

More French items closed the recital, music by Alain's father and brother. Albert Alain's compositions are not part of the standard repertoire, as are those of his son Jehan. But his daughter made a spirited case for two short pieces that revealed both melodic and harmonic interest.

Jehan Alain personified a line by another eminent French organ composer, Charles-Marie Widor: "To play the organ properly one should have a vision of Eternity." Jehan's playing was said to have such a vision; his own music certainly has. A cheery, humorous man, he was not above slipping a bit of humor into a score by way of a quirky chord or spicy sound, but the overriding impression of his music is deep spirituality.

Marie-Claire Alain understands that otherworldly element in her brother's output better than anyone. This insight yielded commanding performances of the solemn Danse funebre pour honorer une memoire heroique and the brilliant, almost giddy Litanies.

Spirituality and visions of eternity continued on Saturday evening at Kraushaar Auditorium. The Washington Bach Consort, making the first of what are planned to be annual visits to Baltimore, offered an enriching, historically sensitive account of Bach's masterpiece of masterpieces, the St. Matthew Passion.

Founded 25 years ago by J. Reilly Lewis, the consort enjoys a reputation for superior musicianship and scholarship, bringing baroque music to life with renewed appreciation for, but not faceless adherence to, authentic performance practice. What the audience at Goucher heard was a sterling example of this devotion and artistry.

The St. Matthew Passion could not be more specific in terms of subject matter -- the last days of Jesus, as told by Matthew's gospel, interspersed with contemplative arias and chorales. But the work transcends denominational allegiance. Purely as narrative, it makes a powerful statement (some early listeners complained that it was too much like that sinful thing called grand opera). Purely as music, it has tremendous structural integrity, unending inventiveness, vivid sonic imagery and expressive intensity.

Lewis demonstrated an appreciation for all of those elements. His conducting had a strong inner rhythmic pulse and was always alert to the subtleties of both vocal and instrumental coloring. A few fleeting moments that needed tighter coordination and control could not detract from a performance so rich in style and substance.

The consort's two dozen choristers fulfilled their assignment with admirable steadiness of articulation and smoothness of blend. The Maryland Boy Choir made sweet contributions at the beginning and end of Part 1 (but did an awful lot of squirming onstage in between).

As the Evangelist, Robert Petillo used his thin tenor eloquently. Singing from memory, baritone Christopheren Nomura delivered Jesus' lines with affecting warmth.

Baritone David Newman stood out for an exquisitely phrased, velvet-toned Mache dich, mein Herz. Contralto Beverly Benso produced a somewhat veiled sound that could turn gravely in the lower range, but she revealed strongly poetic instincts. Soprano Kendra Colton and tenor Benjamin Butterfield sang with consistent and considerable elegance.

Adding immeasurably to the experience was the consort's virtuosic orchestra of period instruments, which encountered few intonation lapses and maintained a level of communicative phrasing to match that of the singers.

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