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Haselböck brings Liszt’s flamboyant interpretations of Bach to the Davies organ

Austrian organist Martin Haselböck
Austrian organist Martin Haselböck
courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

Yesterday afternoon Austrian organist Martin Haselböck was the soloist on the Ruffatti Concert Organ in Davies Symphony Hall as part of the San Francisco Symphony Organ Series of concerts. The recital marked the beginning of two weeks of programming in Davies conceived the celebrate the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and his legacy. Readers of my national site may be more familiar with Haselböck as a conductor, since, in that capacity, he conducted the Vienna Academy Orchestra in a five-CD collection of the twelve symphonic poems of Franz Liszt. It was therefore no surprise that yesterday afternoon he would present music from Liszt’s organ repertoire focused on that composer’s own reflections on Bach.

The second half of Haselböck’s program was devoted almost entirely to Liszt’s arrangements of Bach’s music. The first of these was the final chorus from the BWV 21 cantata Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (I have much distress). Because Liszt structured this chorus as a prelude and fugue, Liszt could take a relatively straightforward approach to transcription, although he could not resist adding a toccata flourish for a coda.

This was followed by a far more extensive composition, a set of variations that Liszt composed on the passacaglia bass line from the BWV 12 cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (weeping, lamenting, worrying, fearing). In one respect Liszt was following in Bach’s footsteps, since Bach had already repurposed this music for the setting of the “Crucifixus” in the BWV 232 Mass setting in B minor. As might be expected, however, Liszt went much further than Bach when it came to emoting over each of the four verb forms in the cantata’s title; and Haselböck summoned the full force of the Ruffatti organ to an extent that had it roaring out the full force of this extended set of variations. It would probably be an overstatement to claim that every single Ruffatti pipe was brought into play for this performance, but Haselböck probably pushed the pneumatic system about as far as it could realistically go.

Unfortunately, the first half of the program, which was devoted entirely to Bach’s own music, was not nearly as impressive. The major selection was the BWV 564 C major set of a toccata, an adagio, and a fugue. This provided Haselböck with the most extended opportunity to display his footwork on the pedal keyboard; but his overall conception of the work often lacked coherence, particularly in what sounded like an almost dismissive conclusion to the fugue.

That pedal-work was also on display in BWV 650, the last of the six “Schübler” chorales, in which the pedal carries the hymn theme “Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter” (come, Jesus, down from Heaven). Since Bach himself was a master organist, he probably took a certain virtuoso pride in assigning trills to this pedal line; and Haselböck handled these deftly. He performed all six of these “Schübler” chorales, always bringing out the theme of the chorale against Bach’s context of elaborate inventions.

Far less satisfying was the opening selection, the BWV 593 arrangement of Antonio Vivaldi’s A minor concerto for two violins and strings, the eighth concerto in his Opus 3 L’Estro Armonico (harmonic inspiration). This performance ran the gamut from uncertain to slipshod, almost as if Haselböck had not yet familiarized himself with his instrument. Indeed, his phrasing was so uncertain that it seemed as if he had not yet established the necessary “choreography” to manage the five manuals and their respective configurations of stops.

One thus came away with the impression that Haselböck had been more interested in preparing his Liszt than in bringing Bach to the abundant resources of the Ruffatti organ. Certainly, Liszt influenced the rhetoric of his final selection, in which he improvised on themes from all three of the BWV 564 movements, as well as the most familiar (BWV 645) of the “Schübler” chorales, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (sleepers wake, the hour strikes). As impressive as this was, it was still hard to come away without feeling that Bach had been more than a little slighted, making for a rather inadequate “overture” for the coming series of concerts.

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