Paul Jacobs is a famed organist, the chairman of the department at Juilliard. (Grant that a famous organist is not very famed in the world at large.) He is embarked on a three-recital series exploring “The Great French Organ Tradition.” The first recital took place on Tuesday, September 10, at Juilliard. The third will take place next Tuesday at Saint Ignatius Loyola Church. The middle one took place two nights ago at another church, Saint Mary the Virgin.
Before he played, Jacobs came out to talk. Nearly every concert is a concert-lecture. It used to be you were surprised when a performer spoke from the stage. Now it is a surprise—and, to some of us, refreshing—when he doesn’t. Regardless, Jacobs spoke well (and briefly). He talked of the church he would play in, and he talked about how to listen to music. One might close one’s eyes, for example.
He also talked about the music he was about to play—Messiaen, for example. Music is not necessarily meant to give pleasure, he said. It can provoke or frighten or sadden or whatever.
Mr. Jacobs is a smart and subtle fellow. If you listened between the lines, he was saying, “You may not like this music, at all. But, darn it, you should.” I have rarely seen a better example of expectations management.
He also said that we were not to applaud until the end of the recital. And he warned—or “said,” if you like—that he would talk again before the end of the program.
The program started with a piece by Jean Langlais, who lived throughout almost the whole of the twentieth century: 1907 to 1991. The evening’s program notes were by David Crean, a recent Juilliard graduate who now teaches organ at Wright State University in Ohio, and excellent they are.
“It might surprise many concertgoers to know that there exists a long and distinguished history of blind organists,” he writes. There was one such, Francesco Landini, in the fourteenth century. “The phenomenon was especially prominent in nineteenth- and twentieth-century France,” Crean continues, “where the Institute for the Blind in Paris trained dozens of the best organists in the world”—one of whom was Langlais.
Very interesting. I think of a German, Helmut Walcha, whose dates, as it happens, are the same as Langlais’s: 1907 to 1991.
Paul Jacobs played “Acclamations carolingiennes,” from the Suite médiévale. The piece sounds exactly like its title (once you know the title). It is thunderous, “ancient,” and indeed acclamatory. When it ended, I resented the organist’s prohibition against applause—against acclamation, if you will. I think an audience ought to be allowed to applaud when it wants, without instruction from the performer.
By the way, what a pleasure to be in the presence of an organ: a real organ, in a church. No recording can quite relay the experience, can it?
The program continued with Messiaen: the Messe de la Pentecôte. I admire Messiaen for many reasons, one of which is this: he does not, in many of his compositions, try to please. He is to his own self true. This mass can be very hard going, despite some touches of birdsong, a Messiaen trademark. It can be like eating straw. But the music was no doubt very meaningful to the composer, and it is no doubt the same to his devotees.
One of them is Mr. Jacobs, to be sure. On many occasions, he has performed the complete works of Messiaen in one sitting—a feat that takes about nine hours.
At Saint Mary’s, aural relief came in the form of a piece by Henri Mulet (1878–1967). Or at least it served that function for me. The piece was “Rosace,” from Esquisses byzantines: intricate, luminous, and very French. This was followed by a piece by Jean Guillou, who died earlier this year at a great age.
I know him mainly as a performer, and I think of one recording in particular: an album of organ encores. This is a lovable album, filled with Guillou’s own arrangements—of Handel’s Water Music, for example.
Mr. Jacobs played Guillou’s Saga No. 4, Op. 20, which has the feel of a modernist improvisation.
I had a thought at Saint Mary’s, which I have thought a lot, and discussed a bit, including in print: there is music that is more enjoyable to compose, study, and play than to listen to. Perhaps this should be the subject of a long, contentious, controversial essay.
The final piece on the program was Suite—just “Suite”—Op. 5, by Duruflé. Before he began it, Jacobs spoke again. He congratulated the audience on the “intensity” of its listening. The suite ends with a toccata, dazzling and loud.
Time to say something about Jacobs’s playing? It was superb. From the first page or two, you knew that this was a man who knew what he was doing. Jacobs is no-nonsense. He does not fuss over music or cute it up. He just plays it, straightforwardly and rightly. His judgment is well-nigh unerring. He has fabulous fingers (and feet). If you were releasing a recording of Tuesday night’s recital, you would not have to doctor it at all. There was scarcely a missed note. Jacobs has an acute sense of rhythm—crucial in a musician, and maybe especially in an organist. He knows how to deal with dynamics, colors—everything.
Let me stress again his stringency. You will never hear playing less airy-fairy or namby-pamby. Yet it is never insensitive. Sitting there, I thought, “He is like a Szell of the organ.” If George Szell, the great conductor, had been an organist, he would have played like Paul Jacobs. I cannot render higher praise than that.
He played an encore, and it was the Widor Toccata. By this is meant the final movement—the toccata—of the Organ Symphony No. 5 by Charles-Marie Widor. Funny, but during the toccata by Duruflé, I thought, “I wonder what it would be like to hear Jacobs play the Widor Toccata.”
What was it like? Like you, perhaps, I have heard this piece 568 times. Never quite like this. It was bracing, inexorable, heart-stopping (and heart-swelling at the same time). It was a divine delirium. Your bones rattled—literally. (I am talking about physical sensations.) Never have I been more aware of the poverty of a recording, any recording. Paul Jacobs played the Toccata with the stringency, the tenderness, and the élan that the piece requires. (I am taking the technique for granted, which one should not.) Afterward, audience members kept asking one another, “What was that? What was that piece?” Widor, I believe, would have been tickled.
I left the church with a feeling of elation. Rarely do you get a musical experience—or any, I would think—so thrilling.