New York Philharmonic organist Kent Tritle performed an organ recital at Smithfield Church this past Saturday as a benefit for the Oratorio Society of New York. Due to the recent installation of air-conditioning, the Church’s 1893 Johnson & Son, Opus 796, seven-stop tracker organ, known for its especially sweet tone, was in as good form as its noted player who had just returned from playing a recital in a German Abbey (Stiftskirche, Kyllburg) on two tracker organs, one on each end of the church, that featured a single console, so that Tritle was able to play both organs simultaneously.
Tritle opened with J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543, the first of six such works published 1812 (sixty-two years after Bach’s death) in Vienna. Composed during his Weimar period, the syncretic marriage pairing of Prelude and Fugue was one of Bach’s great innovations of his day, inspiring him to exploit the full range of an organ from its sweetest sounding capabilities to bass reverberations that nearly make a church tremble with jubilant shock.
It was fitting that the next work was by Felix Mendelssohn who began in 1829 to lead a revival of Bach in Germany after Bach had gone out of fashion. And it wasn’t till about another eighty years after Mendelssohn died that Bach’s universal genius was recognized. Mendelssohn’s six organ Sonatas (1844-5) were conceived of as an organ manual in the manner of Bach’s instruction manuals. To complete this “inward work” Mendelssohn turned down an invitation from the New York Philharmonic to conduct a grand music festival for the newly formed yet ambitious organization.
Tritle performed Mendelssohn’s Sonata No. 3 in A major, Op. 65, which has only two movements. None of these Mendelssohn pieces is really a sonata in any sense at all, but rather loosely united movements where fugues and chorales interweave. The English commission of these works was for “voluntaries,” which Mendelssohn took to be whatever inspiration would lead him to accomplish. The first joyous movement offered bright contrast to the Romantic storm of the much longer second dramatic movement where roiled emotions led to a tranquil meditation of the fickle nature of life. Some critics have speculated that the first happy movement was a re-drafting of a processional played for sister Fanny’s 1829 wedding, which, if true, then the second movement records the turbulent travails of Fanny’s marriage and its eventual acceptable placidity, or possibly in a more optimistic light: the drama of the difficult birth of Fanny's son Hensel, with her soothing cradling of her son, and then the joyous reception of of both. I vote for the latter.
Alexandre Guilmant’s Sonata No. 5 in C minor, Op. 80 was next. This lengthy work in six movements was one of the highlights during the late nineteenth century French organ movement, influenced by Bach. Beginning with an Allegro Gallic march, it moved to filigree, chorale, and neo-Bachlike fugue, yet it was the late Romantic Scherzo which was the most thrilling highlight of this work that managed to conclude in C major.
For encore, Tritle offered the last movement of Mendelssohn’s organ Sonata No. 1, op. 65, which sounded like it pushed the Johnson tracker to its limits. That movement left me speechless and the audience delirious.
Afterwards there was a most pleasant reception where Tritle gregariously mingled with the crowd, exuding his affability and good humor amid deliciously baked home goodies as well as cheeses, fruits, and wine.