Kent Tritle has been playing Johnson tracker organs since he was a teenage and he really knows how to make a Johnson tracker organ sing as he did last Saturday at Smithfield Church. The event was a Benefit for the Oratorio Society of New York where he is the Director. Organized by Sharon Webb and introduced by Reverend Douglas Grandgeorge, Tritle opened with Swedish-born Dietrich Buxtehude’s Praeludium in C, BuxWV 137 which has three parts: the first of which is a free prelude with nimble fingering, the second a strict and serious fugue, and the last an improvised run up from a ground bass that concludes with an impressively long, low, emphatic hum that is memorable.
J.S. Bach’s Piece d’Orgue, BWV 572 began in a light, cheerful French courtly mode in the upper register and staid there; the second movement began with a simplified version of Buxtehude with fewer notes but with more pedal work and then plunged back into the more Medieval modality of Palestrina in Italy which conveyed deep mystic awe; the third movement harkened back to Ferrara-born Frescobaldi and displayed how Bach could move forward with five row harmonies as if he were writing a chorale, the signature of Protestant Reformation music.
This was followed by Three Chorales, Op. 122 by Johannes Brahms: “Herzliebster Jesu,” “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen,” and “Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele.” Written in 1896, they were just the right pieces to play on an 1893 tracker organ because this was the exact sound that Brahms was aiming for.
Switching back to Bach, Tritle played Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major, BWV 564, which suggested a structure much like a Vivaldi concerto with its fast-slow-fast pattern. The opening tutti-solo toccata featured fancy finger work and even more ferocious pedal work as if testing how far one could push the pedals; the slow meditative Adagio was my favorite movement of the whole concert—that movement carried a dialogue with two religious themes which I thought to be one of identity—Catholic or Protestant; the third movement resembling a Vivaldi concerto. Bach appears to be suggesting that the panorama of aesthetic possibilities remain larger than the current repertoire. The curt single note that concludes the finale delivered a humorous whack that was surprising as it was memorable in contrast to the earlier long-note ending.
Prelude and Fugue in C minor, Op. 37. No.1 by Felix Mendelssohn was next. Neil Wenborn’s book on Mendelssohn declares this work “Mendelssohn’s first major contribution to the organ and arguably the most important by any composer since the death of Bach.” This was the first of three preludes and fugues written within four days during his honeymoon with Cécile when he was incredibly productive. The happy emotion of this work sent me into near ecstasy.
For encore Tritle performed Bach’s Great Fugue in G major, BWV 576!