Seattle's Benaroya Hall, home of the Seattle Symphony, also contains a fine organ, which is the most prominent visual feature as you look at the stage of Big Ben (as opposed to the recital hall, or Little Ben). This year, the Symphony has promoted a series of three Bach organ recitals on the Watjen Concert Organ, designed by the leading American organ builder, C.B. Fisk. Joseph Adam of St. James Cathedral was the soloist, and last week Dr. Adam concluded the series before a large and rightly enthusiastic audience.
Adam brought his series to an end with one of Bach's most powerful and fully worked out pieces, the great Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, a work which combines exploration, intellectual rigor, energy, and drama in equal measure. Adam's powerful performance brought his fine series to a fitting climax. My review of an earlier organ recital in the series is here.
Bach has an image as the austere and bewigged Cantor of Leipzig and classical music's great intellectual, but the rest of the program centered on works that illustrate his exuberance, humor, charm, and his virtuosic (sometimes frankly exhibitionist) command of the organ. The Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major which opened the evening is renowned for its long pedal solo, but it is equally notable for its quirky, almost cheeky, opening flourish and its bouncy fugue. The Prelude and Fugue in D major also showcases the pedals. Its fugue, based on what sounds like a child's finger exercise on the first three notes of the major scale followed by a mock-pompous octave drop, is a comical, teasing piece.
The immensely vigorous and exuberant Prelude and Fugue in G major, which opened the second half, was followed by two delightful chorale trios written when Bach was in Leipzig, and the joyful, improvisatory chorale prelude on the melody "Deck Thyself, My Soul, In Gladness."
Adam's interpretations were always vigorous and direct, and exploited the Watjen organ's variety of color and expressive range. The lighter pieces came over with particular charm. In the big Preludes and Fugues, he kept up a good pace and avoided the excessive contrasts and manual changes that one sometimes encounters in more mannered performances. The one piece of registration that might have raised eyebrows was the use of a wide and to my ears somewhat emetic tremolo in the melody line of the "Deck Thyself..." chorale prelude.To judge from some of the conversations I overheard, the audience was knowledgeable as well as enthusiastic. I was however somewhat surprised on the way out to hear a lady assert that the Duet in F, which Adam offered as an encore, was "certainly not by Bach, but by one of his imitators." So far as I know this is the first challenge to the authenticity of this charming and subtle piece, long established as one of the Four Duets in the "Clavierubung" and bearing the official catalog number BWV 803. Still, the learned comment made clear that Adam has a keenly interested following in Seattle. Well he should, for he is a fine exponent of Bach's organ music, an inexhaustible golden treasury that I hope he will keep mining for us in future years.