Bach and Reger: They Might Be Giants

United StatesUnited States Reger, Bach, Paul Jacobs (organist), Paul Hall, Juilliard School,  Lincoln Center, New York, 8.9.2014 (SSM)

Paul Jacobs Photo Credit Christina Wilton
Paul Jacobs
Photo Credit Christina Wilton


Reger             Fantasy and Fugue on BACH, Op. 46
J.S. Bach       Chorale-Prelude: Von Gott will ich nicht lassen, BWV 658
Prelude and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 539 (the “Fiddle”)
Reger               Intermezzo, Op. 80, No.10
Introduction, Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme, Op. 73


The works by Max Reger presented here date from the first 5 years of the 20th Century. During this period, Mahler’s 3rd, 4th and 5th Symphonies, Busoni’s towering piano concerto and Bruckner’s 9th Symphony were premiered. While Reger’s “Introduction, Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme,” the centerpiece of this program, lasts only 35 minutes, it shares the grandeur and complexity of its musical contemporaries.

 Clearly Paul Jacobs found this work worth the time it took to master, as he confirmed through his playing and his comments during an evening of music and explication. The sold-out concert’s demographics were quickly surveyed by Jacobs who asked the audience to raise their hands if it was their first organ recital. There was only a scattering of hands which might explain the warm reception given to the soloist at the end of the recital: music of this density, dissonance and duration is not easily appreciated.

 Although Jacobs stated that little in the score specifies which stops to use and when, and thus requires additional effort on the part of the performer to determine a fitting timbre, the score is quite unequivocal about how it should be played. Instructions for which manual(s) to use, which couplers not to use (nur Coppel zum), and when to pause and when not to (Keine pause!), as well as detailed tempi and dynamic marks, make the work even more challenging. Jacobs accomplished the nearly impossible: quickly pulling stops, switching from keyboard to keyboard and applying virtuosic techniques on the pedalboard all at the same time. And it’s impressive to see him do all this without a sheet of music in front of him!

 As part of his opening remarks, Jacobs sampled the motifs of the variations and of the fugue. This was a smart thing to do as it clarified the work’s structure. Knowing what to look for made it easier to to follow the variations which often followed one another without pause. The main motif could be clearly discerned in each of the variations, some of which were surprisingly light-hearted. Dissonances abounded and chromaticisms were ever present; yet even though it edged close to atonality, it never really escaped tonality’s pull, ending as Bach’s works often did on a colossal dominant pedal point.

 Reger’s “Intermezzo” proved that he was capable of composing music that never raised its voice above piano except for a brief measure which starts as a forte but ends as a piano. This is about as delicate a piece as can be imagined for an organ: one soft voice being echoed by an even quieter upper voice. Jacobs used the choir and swell manuals to clarify and differentiate the musical lines.

 The opening work, “Fantasy and Fugue on BACH,” is Reger’s take on Bach’s own variations as most prominently used in Art of the Fugue. As Bach did with his variations, Reger also transposes, inverts and retrogrades the theme. If that isn’t enough, the theme becomes the motif of not only a complex fugue, but a double fugue at that.

 Who would ever state that any of Bach’s organ works could serve as a respite, a quiet point in the middle of a storm? The two Bach pieces seemed tame in comparison to the works surrounding them. This Choral Prelude is one of many Bach wrote as improvisations on choral texts for religious services. The Prelude and Fugue in D minor has as its distinguishing feature the fact that the fugue is almost a note by note transcription of the second movement of the G-minor Sonata for solo violin.

 For his encore Jacobs played the fugue from Bach’s A-minor Prelude and Fugue, referring to it as “little.”  It might have been little to him but the audience certainly thought it was “great.”



Stan Metzger




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