A masterly organ recital at the Proms by Martin Baker

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms 2021 [2] – Bach and Baker: Martin Baker (organ). Royal Albert Hall, London, 1.8.2021. (MB)

Martin Baker

Bach – Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major, BWV 552, ‘St Anne’
Martin Baker – Improvisation on Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major, BWV 552
Bach – Fantasia in G major, BWV 572 (‘Pièce d’orgue’)
Baker – Improvisation on Bach’s Fantasia in G major BWV 572
Bach – Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582
Baker – Improvisation on English Melodies

Following a fine performance of the Poulenc Organ Concerto on the First Night of the Proms — and Nina Raine’s play Bach and Sons at the Bridge Theatre, on Saturday afternoon —Sunday morning brought a Proms organ recital from Martin Baker (replacing, for obvious reasons, the originally advertised Olivier Latry). The second largest organ in Britain, on which Bruckner gave a series of celebrated recitals (including improvisations) less than a month after its actual baptism, found itself in excellent hands for an engaging programme of Bach and Baker’s own improvisations. Organists are accustomed to adapting not only to entirely different instruments but to strikingly different buildings and acoustics, often far from ideal for either instrument or music. There was no sign of any such problem here. The music might have been conceived for this particular occasion — as, of course, some of it was.

First, though, we heard the great — in more than one sense — E-flat major Prelude and Fugue from the third volume of the Clavier-Übung. Double-dotting invoked Bach’s French inheritance, though there was nothing dogmatic to this or any other aspect of Baker’s approach. Instead, quite rightly, he took advantage of the instrument under his hands and feet, also remaining stylish throughout. Transitions between sections in the Prelude were well handled, balancing twin demands of continuity and impetus. Fugal devices were communicated with almost Mozartian élan. The Fugue itself was taken at a measured tempo, permitting growth without being hurried and imparting a sense of Trinitarian strength: the Rock of Ages, we might say. And yet, it still gathered pace for a delightfully bell-like, pealing culmination.

The opening of Baker’s improvisation forsook such bright sounds for flutes, slightly muffled by comparison, taking up part of the Prelude’s opening theme for its own use. This proved a gateway for exploration of the instrument as much as anything else, drawing on other material from Bach’s work in something that began to resemble a post-Lisztian paraphrase on Bach. Like a fine continuo player, Baker led us skilfully from one aria to another, or rather from one Bach work to another. Indeed, one might almost have missed the beginning of the G major Fantasia, BWV 572, whose very different concerns seemed in turn to grow out of Baker’s improvisation. The Fantasia, a somewhat strange work to which I have never quite warmed, in turn suggested Bach the improviser and provoked a further instance of Baker’s own improvisational skills. Here, the French organ school seemed more in evidence, though never to be pinned down to direct ‘influence’. New colours and devices again showed off not only the instrument, but also the potentialities of Bach’s material to which all of us, whether as performers, listeners, or composers, respond so differently. The C minor Passacaglia afforded another fine encounter with material and instrument (not to forget organist too). There arose a grand feeling of necessity and inevitability, even implacability such as surely influenced Brahms and twentieth-century successors too. This was a modern, syncretic Bach, his stature undeniable, with nothing to prove and everything to be gained.

It was followed by Baker’s final improvisation, ‘on English melodies’. For some reason, I had been expecting something more folk-like, but was soon disabused. Pomp and Circumstance references, from an opening fanfare onwards, reminded us of another aspect of the Proms. Bach’s previously heard E-flat Prelude and Fugue, known to Anglophones as the ‘St Anne’, on account of the fugue subject’s likeness to William Croft’s hymn tune (‘O God, our help in ages past’), was honoured once more, albeit at one remove, Baker taking Croft rather than Bach as his material. ‘Nimrod’ too was present in what took on the character of an aural parade, musical favourites passing by, sometimes returning (and combining). ‘Pivot’ chords both pivoted and sometimes piqued our attention by behaving otherwise. Plentiful reeds and mixtures led to a climactic contest between Elgar and Croft, in which collaboration rather than competition ultimately won out.

Mark Berry

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