A Highly Imaginative Organ Recital by Richard Gowers

18/06/2018

‘Germans at Westminster Abbey’ – Bach, Wagner, Liszt, and Strauss: Richard Gowers (organ), Westminster Abbey, London, 17.6.2018. (MB)

Richard Gowers

Bach-Schoenberg, arr. Gowers – Prelude in E-flat major, BWV 552
Wagner, arr. Edwin Lamare – Tannhäuser: ‘Lied an den Abendstern’
Liszt, arr. Louis Falk – Liebesträume, no.3, S 54
Strauss, arr. Gowers – Feuersnot: ‘Zwischenspiel/Liebesszene’

Theodor Adorno’s challenge to ‘authenticke’ colonisation of Bach’s music, a furious denunciation of the 1950 bicentenary reconstructionism he rightly saw mirroring that of the Federal Republic of Germany, remains in many respects unanswerable. Alas, as with so many things, being unanswerable does not necessarily translate into worldly acceptance. (‘Take back control’, anyone?) Bach still needs defending from his Liebhaber (devotees); or rather they need offending. Anyone with an ear and a mind knows the truth of this claim from another of Adorno’s essays, Tradition: ‘The difference between what is past and what is present … is not absolute. One can only understand Schoenberg if one understands Bach; one can only understand Bach if one understands Schoenberg.’ Alas, the musical world, like the world at large, is not always in the hands of those with ears and minds. In a modernist age, we need modernist Bach – which can take all manner of forms, certainly not to be restricted a priori. It is literalism that kills. Adorno thus commended Schoenberg’s Bach orchestrations along with Webern’s orchestration of the six-part Ricercare from the Musical Offering and Fritz Stiedry’s realization of the Art of Fugue as paragons of fidelity through infidelity to Bach’s music. The music was rethought rather than consigned to the researches of ‘philologists with no compositional ability,’ who would merely apportion the parts between individual instruments or groups of instruments. Modernist Bach takes its cue from Bach’s music, in that the ‘contradiction between music and sound-material,’ especially that between the Baroque organ and the ‘infinitely articulated structure,’ is acted upon, developed, brought into the open rather than falsely reconciled. In the final sentence of his Bach essay, Adorno put it like this: modernist ‘composition … calls his music by name in producing it anew’.

How wonderful, then, to hear a further turn of the dialectical screw in the opening piece of this recital from Richard Gowers on the organ of Westminster Abbey. Having studied Schoenberg’s orchestration of Bach’s St Anne Prelude and Fugue, Gowers attempted – with great success – to return, with interest, some of those fruitful contradictions to the organ. That ‘wondrous machine’ and its operator not only made music – sometimes easier said than done – but offered a stance that was critical, in the best sense, towards both Bach and Schoenberg, and indeed towards so many of our present occupations. A myriad of registration changes – fifty different sound combinations, I am told – worked in furtherance of that, but so did the organist’s structural command in a more conventional sense.

The Liszt and Wagner arrangements that followed were more conventional, I suppose: arrangements rather than transcriptions, should that distinction mean anything at all. (I am not entirely sure that it does, definition always ultimately failing.) Nevertheless, they were nicely shaped, with registration that was ‘appropriate’ in a nineteenth-century sense, without ever merely sounding conventional. Wolfram’s song certainly had one look to the heavens, almost as if one might hear the star of which he told us. Liszt’s Liebesträume initially sounded, I thought, slightly unsuited to its new habitat – not unlike some of Liszt’s ‘own’ organ transcriptions of his piano works. (I use inverted commas, since it is often far from clear how much he did and how much someone else did. His relationship with the instrument remains, however, not only fascinating but fruitful.) Filigree writing worked better than it had any right to; whether this were the doing of the arranger, the organist, or both, I am not sure. Both, I suspect. And finally, Gowers’s own organ transcription (or arrangement?) from Strauss’s Feuersnot offered a rare treat indeed. For such a master of orchestration – the only composer who would have dared update Berlioz’s treatise, let alone succeeded in doing so – to translate so beautifully, even magnificently, into very different washes of sound in so very different an acoustic was quite a thing indeed. Bach’s is not the only music we honour in producing it anew.

Mark Berry

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