The great river Bach

Joseph Adam plays Bach-inspired works, including some attractive rarities, on the Benaroya organ
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Benaroya Hall in Seattle, with the Watjen organ center stage

Joseph Adam plays Bach-inspired works, including some attractive rarities, on the Benaroya organ

With his organ recital on Monday evening of works inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach, Joseph Adam, organist at St. James'ꀙs Cathedral and curator of Benaroya'ꀙs C. B. Fisk organ, brought cheer to a cold and rainy Seattle evening. In his three Bach recitals last year at Benaroya, Dr. Adam showed himself to be a consummate and deeply committed player of Bach, the greatest composer of music for the organ by an immense margin. On Monday, he explored some of the tributaries which flowed from that great river. The audience, small for the Hall, but decent in size for this kind of event, was appreciative and enthusiastic.

Adam got off to a vigorous start with the arrangement by the French organist Guilmant of Bach'ꀙs own orchestral version of the solo violin prelude in E major. Then followed Liszt'ꀙs Variations on 'ꀜWeinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Sagen,'ꀝ a massive meditation on a highly chromatic theme from Bach'ꀙs mourning cantata. Adam drew out in full the drama in this powerful piece. Next came a fine rarity, a Passacaglia by the German-born Wilhelm Middelschulte, who settled in Chicago towards the end of the nineteenth century as a church organist and teacher. Built in part around the musical notation of Bach'ꀙs name, it proved an ingenious and swiftly moving piece with an imposing climax.

Two brighter more exuberant pieces followed after the intermission. Mendelssohn wrote six organ sonatas, energetic and melodious works. Adam played the fourth sonata, in B flat, with sympathy and charm. The next item was by the contemporary organist and composer Naji Hakim, of Lebanese origin working in Paris. Entitled 'ꀜBach'ꀙorama,'ꀝ this is a somewhat zany collection of Bach themes all worked into a striking and colorful kaleidoscope of great wit. The themes come tumbling one after the other at hilarious speed. There must have been a dozen or more all jumbled together, from a whole variety of Bach pieces in different media — keyboard, solo violin, orchestral, even the theme from the 'ꀜArt of Fugue.'ꀝ

When the Watjen organ was first unveiled at Benaroya Hall some eight or nine years ago, the American Guild of Organists commissioned a concerto for organ and orchestra from Hakim to mark the occasion. Entitled the 'ꀜSeattle Concerto," it was given its world premiere by Hakim'ꀙs wife and in my recollection was extremely enjoyable — clearly in the tradition of dramatic French organ music but in a strikingly original style with a distinct Arab flavor to the rhythm and harmony. It would be a great pleasure to hear it again at a future Seattle Symphony concert.

The final item in the program was Max Reger'ꀙs Fantasia and Fugue on B-A-C-H. Reger does not seem to enjoy much of a reputation these days — it is extremely rare to hear his orchestral or chamber music — but his large and obviously Bach-inspired organ pieces are powerful and imposing, not least this fine piece which Adam played with great effect and force.

As an encore, Adam played a piece unfamiliar to me. It sounded like a mixture of Rimsky-Korsakov'ꀙs 'ꀜFlight of the Bumble Bee'ꀝ and Daquin'ꀙs 'ꀜThe Cuckoo.'ꀝ Bizarre, but fun.


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