- Standing Ovations and Cheers for rarely-heard Organ Works

bachtrack.com

By Renee Barrick, Nov. 1, 2010

American organist Stephen Tharp presented the third and final concert of the complete works of Jeanne Demessieux at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Sunday 24 October.

Jeanne Demessieux (1921-1968), a student of Marcel Dupré, is regarded as the greatest organ virtuoso of the 20th century. Her many works for the organ remain largely unknown to the public and even to many organists, save for the Six Etudes that closed the program. This series by Stephen Tharp is the first time that the complete works have been performed live in public by one performer.

The works featured in this concert included a lovely Andante, the Twelve Chorale Preludes Op.7, based on Gregorian themes, and the fiendishly difficult (some would say unplayable) Six Etudes Op.5. The chorale preludes, written with a more liturgical focus, were highly diverse in treatment – texture, registration, tempi and affect were so colorful and varied that listeners were given quite a menu upon which to feast. The Gregorian themes, though recognizable, often received unexpected and sometimes quirky tonal twists in order to accommodate the lush harmonies. Mr Tharp brought out the unique characteristics of each setting to perfection.

The program closed with the Etudes, Demessieux’ most famous work. Each etude addressed a particular technical difficulty: toe pedaling, pedal parts in thirds and in sixths, alternating chords in the manuals, and lastly, octaves in both pedals and manuals. Not being familiar with the music, I could hardly believe my ears – was that perpetual-motion etude in thirds really played on the pedals? A look at the score after the concert confirmed that feet had indeed played what hands often find difficult – and the hands were kept quite busy at the same time!

What I find most remarkable, aside from the most prodigious and fluent technique I have ever heard, is Mr Tharp’s full and creative use of the many tonal colors of the organ, and his ability to get to the heart of the music. Whether an introspective and lyrical piece, or a monumental tour de force, there is never a hint of technique for technique’s sake, or for show, unlike some performers who can play "fast and loud." His performance is always about representing the music with utmost integrity.

And then there is that ineffable “something" that sets his playing apart, as it does the playing of all true masters of their instruments. With Mr Tharp, the magic is always there.