Acclaimed French organist Christophe Mantoux returned to the recital series at All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Point Loma on Sunday (Feb. 16) to play a recital devoted to the music of J. S. Bach. Touching on almost every important Baroque genre that Bach championed–partita, prelude and fugue, fantasia, sonata, and chorale prelude–Mantoux offered an unusually high standard of contemporary 18th-century performance practice combined with his own intuitive affinity for the style.
This essay will pursue an unusual format that juxtaposes my review with the performer’s musicological observations shared in a post-performance interview. Mantoux opened his Bach survey with the Partita on the German chorale “Christ, der du bist der helle Tag,” BWV 766. Since a variation cycle is the perfect vehicle for displaying an organ’s varied colors, Mantoux used it to highlight the many bright and piquant reed sounds found on the church’s Fritts-Richards three-manual tracker organ.
After the performance, Mantoux admitted that this partita may have been intended for harpsichord rather than organ, since it is written only for the manuals, and this chorale was one that would have been sung in the domestic devotions typical of a pious Lutheran household in Saxony at that time. In that light, it was understandable that Mantoux chose a slow, devotional tempo for the partita, in line with the very deliberate tempos at which German hymns were sung.
For the Trio Sonata in C Major, BWV 529, Mantoux chose lively tempos for the outer movements in line with their more progressive galant style, that slightly frivolous, decidedly non-contrapuntal musical trend that made the Leipzig master’s own complex style anathema to the younger generation, including Bach’s own composer sons. That the elder Bach was capable of absorbing the new style into some of his compositions makes him difficult to classify from a historical point of view, according to Mantoux.[php snippet=1]
“You can make a case for Bach as the last Renaissance contrapuntalist, or the synthesizer of Baroque styles, or a modernist, or as the precursor of jazz,” he said with a touch of irony. “Actually, Bach was the most singular of all the great composers of his day. Take, for example, the now well-known triadic theme of ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ (as the aria is known in English-speaking countries). What other composer from his era wrote such a memorable, triadic theme?”
Mantoux used the infrequently programmed Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 537, as a vehicle to demonstrate how Bach wrote in a natural crescendo by gradually making the musical texture thicker, since the organs of that era did not have enclosed divisions with swell shades and other mechanical devises to increase volume. Mantoux’s elegant phrasing kept the musical ideas cleanly defined throughout.
Perhaps the most familiar Bach offering on the recital was the Prelude on the Advent Chorale “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,” BWV 659, which Mantoux took at a languorous tempo, stretching out the dense ornamentation of its melismatic solo line. When asked to explain his approach to this particular chorale prelude, Mantoux invoked his native preference for letting his registration, or choice of colors found in the instrument, dictate the tempo and stylistic inflection.
“Letting the particular color or timbre drive the music is a particularly French trait,” he explained. “This is not just true of French organ music—think of Ravel and Debussy. Their music would be unthinkable without the highly specific, identifying orchestral colors, whereas Germanic music is less tied to orchestration and more driven by thematic development. The particular orchestral colors of a Schumann Symphony, for example, are not essential to the definition of the music.”
Bach is unquestionably part of the Germanic tradition, but he did have an early French connection that Mantoux believes shaped his writing. “When Bach was a teen-ager studying in Lüneburg, he absorbed the Francophile culture of that city. He had access to the resources of the French-speaking ducal court and library in nearby Celle, and there he discovered French music, copying by hand scores by Nicolas De Grigny to learn the French style. It is of no small consequence that Bach was drawn to this music, even though there were no music histories around to point out how monumental this composer was.“
Perhaps it takes a Frenchman to find French influences in Bach’s organ music, but the Gallic imprint in unmistakable in Bach’s secular harpsichord music and his four elaborate orchestral Overtures or Suites.
Monteux saved his panache for the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor with which he closed his recital. A big-shouldered prelude with a fugue driven by a rambunctious subject, it was an ideal choice to unleash the grandeur of the Fritts-Richards instrument. Perhaps because Monteux is the regular organist at the Paris church of Saint-Séverin, an authentically late gothic building, his performance of this Prelude and Fugue transcended the modest dimensions of the Point Loma contemporary edifice and gave the listener the sensation of hearing this work in a much vaster and resonant structure.
As health-conscious as any Californian, Monteux attends his daily exercise, but with a unique musicological twist. While pursuing his morning ride on a stationary bicycle, he methodically listens to a different Bach cantata each day. With over 200 extant cantatas and several complete cycles done by different conductors, he can go for years without repeating a recording.
Maybe my next writing project should be “Why French Performers Never Gain Weight.”