Dallas — Organist Stefan Engels played a recital n Caruth Auditorium on Nov. 22 as part of the Southern Methodist University Faculty Artist and Distinguished Alumni Recital Series. Although the program made no mention of it, this was his debut recital as a faculty member and the holder of the newly created Leah Young Fullinwider Centennial Chair in Music Performance. As such, a distinguished audience of local musicians gathered for this concert. There probably would have been more in attendance but a heavy rainstorm surely discouraged many from attending.
Engels has an impressive biography. He came to international notice when he won the Concerto Gold Medal at the 1998 Calgary International Organ Competition in 1998. Although his early training was in Germany, his connection to SMU features proximately in his résumé. He received an Artist Certificate Degree here, studying under legendary organ professor Robert Anderson, whose faculty position he now occupies. (Anderson retired in 1997 and passed away two years later.)
The recital featured works by French composers, and Engels opened with selections by two who are relatively unknown. Nicolas de Grigny (1672-1703) died young and only left one collection of organ music, his Livre d’orgue. Engels played four selections from that opus. He followed that with two organ concerti by Michel Corrette (1709-1776) accompanied by members of the Dallas Bach Society, who had considerable troubles tuning. Corrette is best known as the author of numerous treatises on how to play a wide range of musical instruments that give us much of what we know about performance practices at the time.
Engels ended with Louis Vierne’s (1870-1937) gloomy and chromatic rumination on the horrors of Would War I, his Fourth Symphony for Organ. It was disappointing that nothing by a living composer was on the program, not only because of the statement of support such a piece would make for the music of our time, but to hear how he would approach such a piece.
There is no doubt that Engels has a formidable technique, with fleet feet and fingers. He did a fine, if heavy-handed, job of registering the organ. Many passages, especially in the Vierne, were ear-splitting to the point of distortion and the registration dense and tubby. This might have been more excusable if he were unfamiliar with the C. B. Fisk organ in Caruth. However, since he was a student here, that cannot be the case.
The strangest part of the concert was Engels’ feel for rhythm—or his lack of it. Nothing he played was in any discernable meter or tempo. Notes progressed quickly or slowly but they were all on their own, unfettered by bar lines or even groupings of three or two. Not even the longer held notes, half or whole notes for example, matched in duration. In Engels’ world, each note occupied its own rhythmic universe, unrelated to any other one in the piece.
Maybe this is a style of organ playing with which I am unfamiliar. Perhaps it is used in the huge cathedrals of Europe where the extensive echo makes it difficult for notes to speak clearly. However, in the small confines of Caruth with an organ outsized for the space, it made for a bizarre performance.