Dallas — The Meyerson Symphony Center’s Grand Tier was nearly full on Saturday evening as organist Leo van Doeselaar performed at the Herman W. and Amelia H. Lay Family Concert Organ in the Dallas Symphony's new Lay Family Concert Organ Recital Series. While the program was heavily tilted toward romantic showpieces, a particular finesse permeated even the flashiest portions of the program.
Beginning with J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G minor, BWV535, a restrained pace was established. While many performances of this work can tend toward the muscular side, especially on contemporary organs, van Doeselaar chose to exploit the more subtle capabilities of this instrument. Although this was much appreciated through the viewpoint of historical performance practice, a small portion of the music was transmitted across the hall as a frustrated attempt to tame some wild beast; some of the gestural pauses and cadential emphasis were lost in the long journey from the organ to our ears.
The Bach/Middelschulte D minor Chaconne that followed served as a bridge between the baroque world and that of the late Romantic period. Wilhelm Middelschulte’s arrangement owes much to the Ferruccio Busoni arrangement of the same movement produced just a few years prior but for the piano. Busoni was very impressed with Middelschulte’s playing when he came to the United States on tour where Middelschulte was already living. Their interaction and mutual respect resulted in Busoni’s dedicating his Fantasia contrappuntistica to the Meister des Kontrapunktes.
Leo van Doeselaar’s performance started very much where he had left off with the Prelude and Fugue. With all available resources, a constrained and markedly Baroque style persisted even where most pianists in the Busoni arrangement have already reached their peak. This revealed different dimensions of work’s coloristic and harmonic possibilities. Approximately two-thirds through the piece, the temperament shifted into a full-fledged Romantic idiom. On one had this was certainly necessary to prepare the audience for the repertoire that followed. But having waited too long to make a move resulted in the work being separated into two sections rather than a cohesive and singular construction.
Much more cohesive was the Grande Pièce Symphonique Op.17 of César Franck, and it is here that the music making was more natural in its proportions. Never once did he give into the temptation to blast the listener with sound, conscientiously controlling dynamic to serve the structure of the work.
After intermission, we heard two works by Johannes Brahms. First, his Prelude and Fugue in G minor, WoO 10 followed by Lionel Rogg’s transcription of the Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op.56. In following the pattern of the first half of the concert, the prelude and fugue was performed with all the finesse of a Baroque composition. The influence of J.S.Bach was certainly evident in this work which includes a toccata style prelude and a fugue subject that could have been taken straight from an 18th century treatise on counterpoint.
Again, a completely different viewpoint was asserted with the organ arrangement of the extremely difficult Variations. Being used to hearing many young pianists performing the Busoni version with absolutely no feel for coloristic development, it was refreshing to hear a variety of orchestrations giving motion to the structure. However, one small complaint was that continuing a very organistic approach to dwelling on certain harmonies or cadences made the piece proceed without any of the urgency and without some of the momentum a master pianist can effectively apply to the work.
The recital concluded with Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, Op.40. As though to placate the casual recital goer who might have objected to the subdued, more conservative playing of the balance of the performance, it contained all of the guilty pleasures of the organ recital: Vast extremes of orchestration, seat rattling volume in the low pipes, etc. But if this was necessary, one could forgive van Doeselaar based on the thoughts he provoked through everything else he performed.