Northwest Bach Festival Friday, Jan. 5, at St. John’s Cathedral
Stefan Kozinski that versatile musician, equally at home at the piano or organ keyboard, on the podium or at the composer’s desk opened the 18th annual Northwest Bach Festival with an organ recital of wide-ranging styles. Friday’s program at St. John’s Cathedral included music of late 17th-century Bach family members alongside 19th- and 20th-century organ works by Mendelssohn, Franck and Messiaen. And, of course, there was J.S. Bach, as well.
Kozinski began with compositions by Johann Christoph Bach and Johann Michael Bach, two of Johann Sebastian Bach’s older, distant cousins. He started with Johann Christoph’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat and five chorale preludes based on Lutheran hymn tunes. Before each of the preludes, soprano Tamara Schupman sang the chorale melody on which each was based. To me, these chorale preludes seemed fairly ordinary examples of 17th-century German organ music - short, practical, not technically demanding but well-crafted, slightly more interesting, perhaps, than Johann Christoph’s colleague Johann Pachelbel (of “Pachelbel’s Canon” fame).
More compelling, from the standpoint of organ playing, were the five chorale preludes by Johann Michael Bach. Though Johann Michael held the posts of organist and town clerk in the very tiny village of Gehren, he was obviously a virtuoso organist. The running scales in his setting of “Rejoice ye, beloved Christians” suggests Johann Sebastian’s later (and greater) chorale prelude on that tune.
Kozinski, by his own admission suffering from the effects of the flu, performed these works by the earlier Bachs somewhat matter-of-factly, even tentatively with minor slips in some places. But there was nothing tentative or matter-of-fact about his performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Sonata in C minor. Here Kozinski treated Mendelssohn’s almost orchestral tonal colors to an imaginative palette of registration made possible by St. John’s organ. The enhanced level of inspiration continued in the works Kozinski played after intermission.
In three movements from Olivier Messiaen’s 1935 suite, “La Nativitie du Seigneur,” Kozinski revealed not only Messiaen’s spiritual intensity and his vivid gift for organ technique and color, but also flashes of rhythmic and melodic elements drawn from American jazz. Without pausing for applause, Kozinski went to Cesar Franck’s Fantasy in C major, then to J.S. Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. He seemed equally at home with Franck’s improvisatory changes of mood and with the excitement of Bach’s masterfully unfolding logic.
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