Organist Delivers Liszt with Charisma
By Jim Lowe
MIDDLEBURY — “Charisma” has been a word that isn’t commonly used to describe organists, perhaps last applied to E. Power Biggs and Virgil Fox, and that was some 50 years ago. Yet few who heard Nathan Laube’s recital Sunday at Middlebury College’s Mead Chapel would deny him that appellation — and he’s only 25.
In works of Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Liszt, Laube not only wowed his enthusiastic audience, he illuminated the large and complex works by these great masters. For Laube is that rare animal, a concert organist — unlike his church brethren — and a true virtuoso.
The works of Bach, even those not often played, feel familiar, but Liszt’s organ music opened up a whole new world. The 1852 Fantasy and Fugue on “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam” (the chorale from the first act of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera “La prophète”) is a 45-minute virtual soap opera embracing the excesses of the Romantic period from Berlioz to Wagner and requiring the same kind of virtuosity Liszt demanded of pianists — but adding pedals.
In short, it was fascinating, extravagant fun — and Laube delivered, making it a deep musical experience.
Although the work was essentially the chorale treated 14 ways, it felt more like a panorama of the organ, storytelling ranging from tender to brooding to climactic. Utilizing imaginative variations in registration (choice of stops, or sets of pipes) and a deft and subtle sense of rhythm, Laube delivered the passion and drama of this magnificent work. It was an amazing experience.
The organ, despite its massive power, has certain interpretive limitations. Like the harpsichord, it is denied the power of crescendo and diminuendo. However, the organist can choose stops or combinations of stops to achieve different colors and vary the rhythm slightly here and there for expressiveness.
Although few organists excel at these, particularly the latter, Laube is already a master. His subtle rhythmic sense made his Bach performances, which made up the first half of the program, infectious — even charismatic.
The seldom-heard Toccata in E Major, BWV 566, which opened the program, was an exercise in brilliant virtuosity that is so characteristic of Bach’s organ music. And Laube delivered with flair.
In Bach’s transcription of Vivaldi’s Concerto No. 11 in d minor for two violins (from “L’estro armonico,” Opus 3), BWV 596, Laube used registration to separate the soloists from the orchestra. Also, he used a pretty extravagant ornamentation in the slow movement, Largo e spiccato.
Bach’s Partita diversa sopra “Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig,” BWV 596, is a richer and broader work, and Laube gave clarity to its complexities as well as delivering its power. Although there were moments of sketchy rubato and a few too many ritards (slowing down toward a conclusion), it was an expert, beautiful and powerful experience.
The audience demanded and received two encores, one by Charles-Marie Widor and the other by Bach. This was Laube’s third performance at Middlebury College, and it is no surprise that he was invited back. He should be invited back again.