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MUSIC REVIEW : Organ Transcriptions Offer Mixed Results

While the movement for authentic performance practice may still be in full swing, Jared Jacobsen longs for the days when transcriptions were the organist’s stock in trade.

On Friday night at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Jacobsen offered an entire program of transcriptions on the 265-rank Hazel Wright organ. The results were mixed.

Transcriptions generate a unique set of problems. If you take a score written for the clarity of the piano, like Prokofiev’s Toccata, Opus 11, and alter it for the dramatic reverberations of a pipe organ (as in the Jean Guillou transcription heard here), have you violated the composer’s original intention? And if so, have you spoiled the integrity of the music or created a new work?

Idiomatic or not, it is difficult to listen to an arrangement of a well-known composition without imagining it in its original form. Admittedly, the Prokofiev-Guillou toccata is an effective, hair-raising piece and Jacobsen has the virtuosity it requires. Still, its wildness balances just this side of a fiery blur and it is impossible to avoid comparing it to the crackling brilliance of the original.

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The cornerstone of Jacobsen’s program, his own transcription of “Pictures at an Exhibition,” engendered its own set of problems.

Caught between Mussorgsky’s virtuosic piano original and Ravel’s oft-programmed arrangement, Jacobsen accomplished neither the brilliance of the former nor the colors of the latter--and sometimes the results were downright ponderous.

There were interesting effects, however, such as antiphonal choirs for the promenade that leads to “The Market Place at Limoges” and again for “Baba-Yaga.” But the most successful use of organ was in the “Catacombs” and “The Great Gate of Kiev.” Here, implied ties to Russian Orthodoxy clearly lend themselves to this devotional instrument.

The power of the Crystal Cathedral’s pipe organ beckons enticingly. Jacobsen wielded that power for some deafening jolts, opening with a Guillou-Jacobsen version of Liszt’s “Fantasia and Fugue on B-A-C-H” and closing with a blustery toccata on “Thou Art the Rock,” by Henri Mulat.

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Still, the most satisfying sections were the calmest ones. The single flute stop for the adagio of J.S. Bach’s transcription of Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in A minor cloaked the sanctuary in introspection; the opening of the berceuse from Maurice Besly’s transcription of “Firebird” eerily re-created Stravinsky’s ominous aura.


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