Music to challenge the mind and body
David Adams presented a typically wild and ambitious programme featuring music that most organists would fear to touch
MAX REGER wrote some of the blackest-looking, busiest-sounding music ever conceived for two hands and two feet at the organ. The composer’s early 20th-century restless chromaticism is home ground for Dublin organist David Adams, whose doctoral dissertation on ‘Modern’ Organ Style in Karl Straube’s Reger Editions is freely available online. It’s even feasible to see the extravagant note density of Reger as having given Adams a perspective from which almost anything can come to seem relatively straightforward.
Adams didn’t offer any Reger at St Michael’s Church, Dún Laoghaire, on Sunday, when he gave the last recital in the current organ series there. But he did choose a number of pieces that kept fingers and feet extremely busy and he was true to his reputation for presenting programmes that are only predictable in their unpredictability.
He gave Sunday’s programme the title Toccatas, Adagios and Fugues, to which he tagged the explanatory line: “Toccatas for the gut; adagios for the heart; fugues for the mind”. All well enough. But who else would launch into a concert with the zany Toccata delectatione by the little-known Weimar-based composer Wolf-Günter Leidel?
Leidel is now in his early 60s, and his Toccata is a showstopper of a piece, an opportunity for organists to have a bit of fun in music that explodes from one series of blatant exaggerations and misbehaviours into another.
Adams spoke to his listeners after he had led them through the musical equivalent of distorting mirrors and fairground rides. “I suppose I should apologise for that,” he said. Then he paused and added, “Maybe not.” He followed the Leidel with a piece from a different extreme, a Prière, by French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888), the third of a set of 13 written around 1870. Is Alkan, asks Adams, “the greatest unknown composer of the 19th century”? Who can tell, since so many of the unknowns still remain unknown.
Alkan, who was a virtuoso to be considered alongside Liszt, is best known for pieces of such scarifying technical difficulty that, to this day, only a handful of players will go near them. He also created works that are at once simple and direct, but also blessed with turnings that make them surprising and sometimes extraordinarily oblique. It’s almost as if Alkan had somehow got a whiff of 20th-century developments before their time. Adams communicated the pathos in the composer’s unique voice with devotional fidelity.
The evening’s other unusual exhumation was an adagio, the third of a set of 12, by the Darmstadt-based composer Johann Christian Heinrich Rinck (1770-1846), whose mild sweetness of style seems to have stemmed from a wish to provide music that was suitable for liturgical use.
Adams cunningly offered Rinck as a foil to follow the depths of Bach’s O Mensch, bewein deine Sünde groß. Curiously, in the evening’s Bach (which also included the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C) and in a toccata by Frescobaldi, Adams seemed at times a little apart from the music, as if trying out a range of rhetorical devices that, although impressive in themselves, didn’t quite fit.
The final three items constituted a kind of musical sandwich, toccatas by Anton Heiller and Franz Schmidt – two 20th-century composers who spent their working lives in Vienna – framing a fugue by Mozart, the one he originally wrote for two pianos, which Adams presented in his own, highly-satisfying arrangement. The flamboyant toccatas were a delight, too.
* Adams reaches into all kinds of musical nooks and crannies, so you might take it for granted that he has featured the organ works of the likes of Arnold Schoenberg and Arvo Pärt in his repertoire. I’ve traced performances he’s given of Schoenberg’s Variations on a Recitative, but not found any indication that he’s actually played Pärt here in Ireland. Why Schoenberg and Pärt? Well, it just occurred to me to wonder, given that these two composers are featured in new books with Irish connections.