Monday, September 10, 2018

An Organ Pot-pourri to Start the Season

Namhee Han.


First Fridays at First!, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

The Korean organist Namhee Han has become an annual regular at the Classical Crossroads Inc. “First Fridays at First!~fff” lunchtime recitals in the South Bay, and following her last two appearances, pre- and post-Christmas respectively in 2016-17 and 2017-18, this year she moved up the season’s batting order to lead off for 2018-19. 

Gaston Litaize.
Of all the instrument-specific composer catalogs, those for the organ are perhaps the most hermetically sealed to non-specialists, and I was unsurprised once again to encounter a couple of whom I had never heard in the characteristically wide-ranging line-up of composers that Ms. Han presented. Right at the start came the completely unfamiliar name of Gaston Litaize (1909-1991) who, though blind virtually from birth, nonetheless became a powerful force in the world of 20th century French organ music, inspiring both other performers and composers.

Litaize’s own works include a set of 24 Préludes Liturgiques, No. 8 of which in Ms. Han’s hands started bold, stately, and rather ceremonially. Within its concise span of not much more than two minutes the composer manages a nice contrast onto a “second subject” on woodwind stops before the imperious opening returns in bright trumpet tones; a perfect recital opener. (The few more Préludes Liturgiques that can be found on YouTube evince a good deal of variety across the set, which is concise enough to fit onto one of the five CDs that comprise Litaize’s complete organ music.) 

After this, another French piece, this time quite familiar, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the transcription of Gabriel Fauré’s “Sicilienne” from Pelléas et Mélisande, its airborne flute-and-harp opening melody taking on a somewhat tubby quality transferred to the organ. On the other hand, there was no sense of anything missing in Handel’s Organ Concerto in F Major, Op.4 No.5, HWV293 without its oboe/strings/continuo accompaniment. Ms. Han’s solo account of its four brief movements, Larghetto-Allegro-Alla Siciliana-Presto, contained plenty of timbral variety to enhance the changes of pace. 

Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy (1791).
In March 1789, Joseph Haydn wrote to his Viennese publishers, Artaria: “In a moment of great good humor I have completed a new Capriccio for fortepiano, whose taste, singularity and special construction cannot fail to receive approval from connoisseurs and amateurs alike. It is… rather long, but by no means too difficult.”

The Fantasia in C Major, Hob.XVII:4, for which Ms. Han moved to First Lutheran’s piano, is indeed quite lengthy – its single span only a minute or so shorter than the whole of Handel’s concerto – and quite difficult: full of unpredictable harmonic and melodic twists and turns, it swivels on a dime from ebullience to flashes of irascibility and introspection and back again, but withal never losing coherence. It is, in short, a minor masterpiece, and was by far the finest and most substantial work in Ms. Han’s recital. By-and-large she did it proud, though I wondered whether some passing lack of crispness in articulation was due to fingering technique by someone who is an organist first and foremost. 

Gerre Hancock.
Then it was back to the 20th century for the last two composers, and across the pond in this direction for the first of them, another scion of the (US) organ fraternity wholly unknown to me. This was Gerre Hancock (1934-2012), whose brief Variations on “Palm Beach” made up in contrast what they lacked in number (I counted four): the syncopated second variation was particularly catchy, while the final one was stirring and trumpet-toned enough to have made a strong conclusion to the recital.

But there was still one more item to come, and in “Salamanca” from Trois Préludes Hambourgeois by the Swiss Guy Bovet (b.1942), Ms. Han really pulled out all the stops (well, I had to put it that way, didn’t I?). Goodness knows what this riot of a piece would sound like on a really large pipe organ, but even on First Lutheran’s relatively modest instrument she ran it through an extraordinary gamut of timbres and moods, from the neo-mediaeval pipe-and-tabor opening through increasing contrapuntal elaborations and hints of other composers as varied as Bach, Bizet and Tchaikovsky, to a pew-vibrating conclusion.


“First Fridays at First!”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, September 7, 2018.
Photos: Namhee Han: website; Gaston Litaize: private collection; Haydn: Wikimedia Commons; Gerre Hancock: The University of Texas at Austin.

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