A revelatory Bach X 2 lunch recital on piano and organ by Jonathan Berkahn

Jonathan Berkahn (piano and organ)

JS Bach: Fantasia in C minor, BWV 906
Lute suite in C minor, BWV 997: Sarabande and Gigue
CPE Bach: Sonata for Organ in D, Wq. 70/5
JS Bach: Toccata and Fugue in F, BWV 540

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 20 June, 12:15 pm

Jonathan Berkahn is a versatile musician, happy to play any keyboard instrument, including the piano accordion. In this recital he played three J S Bach pieces on the Steinway, then moved to the pipe organ in the gallery to play an organ sonata by CPE Bach and a final Toccata and Fugue by Bach père.

The Fantasia in C minor is a splendid piece which sounds as bold and inspiring on the harpsichord as on the piano; Berkahn’s playing had all the fluency and energy one could look for. His playing doesn’t prioritise subtlety or finesse; yet his playing was accurate with no more than insignificant smudges, but more importantly for me, it conveyed a sense that the pianist admired it greatly and was able to give it a performance that communicated that belief to his listeners.

That was followed by two pieces from a lute suite in C minor that seems to be more played these days as a guitar piece than on lute or keyboard. The entire suite comprises Prélude, Fugue, Sarabande, Gigue et Double, and he played just the Sarabande and Gigue (without the ‘Double’). The first had an unpretentious dignity that began with a certain ambiguity, a study in slow-moving semi-quavers that rather evaded a conventional melody. Berkahn took the Gigue only a little faster, hardly allowing it to inspire anything other than fairly sedate dancing. And though I suspect these pieces are not felt to have quite the weight of the suites for keyboard, for solo cello and other solo instruments or ensembles, they can be invested with much more weight and gravitas simply by the way they are played – the persuasivenss of the player. That’s what Berkahn achieves for me.

C P E Bach 
Berkahn explained that Bach’s eldest son didn’t follow in his father’s organ footsteps, and that he left very few organ pieces. At the church’s main organ he used registrations on separate keyboards that struck me as somewhat too distinct, which created the impression that the bolder, diapason sound came from somewhere out in the middle of the nave. His playing was staccato in character, and hinted at playfulness and even if it didn’t convey evidence of a gifted organ composer, once one had retuned one’s hearing to 50 years later, to the ‘galante’ musical environment of the court of his monarch Frederick the Great, Emanuel Bach finds a respectable place. The middle movement, Adagio e mesto, did offer hints as to Emanuel’s musical inheritance; yet Berkahn’s playing, thoughtful and careful as it was, showed well enough how his father’s genius could never be recaptured, in a different environment, just half a century later.

The very different character of the later 18th century – the ‘rococo’ or ‘galante’ style even more marked – was audible in the final Allegro. I felt that the boisterous triplet quavers in 4/4 time seemed to call for rather more flamboyant registrations and brilliant playing than might have been possible on the St Andrew’s organ .

Toccata and Fugue BWV 540 
Berkahn remained at the gallery organ to play J S Bachs Toccata and Fugue in F, which I found I hardly knew. The toccata is a startling piece, a sort of perpetuum mobile with endless semiquavers on the manual over prolonged pedal points, which became a virtuoso semi-quaver exhibition on the pedals. It must have been an impressive exhibition for those who’d responded to Berkahn’s suggestion to go upstairs to watch.

It certainly sounded splendid from the ground, and I found that I’d scribbled remarks like ‘impressive pedal work’ ‘it seems to lose a bit of what one thinks of as Bach the church organist’; ‘the 21st century organist takes charge’.  (They don’t all survive as considered views). What a contrast then, as the slow, meditative Fugue began, using more sober registrations for an ordinary fugal subject as it began; but one nevertheless sensed the potential for a build up to a level of excitement that might match the toccata; and indeed it did. The fugal figures moved between manuals and pedals with increasing complexity, calmly gaining in fugal elaboration but in unvarying tempo.

The piece was a bit of an eye-opener for me, and I rather look forward to hearing it on a really big organ: how about hurrying up the Town Hall rebuild! In the meantime, this was a rather splendid recital that offered some fresh insights, both into C P E and into a J S Bach work whose unfamiliarity (to me) was a matter of considerable surprise. It was a very rewarding lunch break.

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