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Concert review: An ear-opening pairing of organ and piano in Organix 12 concert

By John Terauds on May 11, 2012

Nigel Potts, left, and Jeremy Filsell

The first week of Organix 12 festival concerts ended with a gala pairing of two great interpreters performing at Metropolitan United Church on Friday evening.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

New Zealand native organist Nigel Potts and his British teacher, Jeremy Filsell — who both now live and work in the United States — explored the possibilities of pairing organ and piano, of substituting both instruments for a symphony orchestra and performing pieces written for piano on the organ, and art song transcriptions on the piano.

Most of the music was by pianist-composer Sergei Rachmaninov, who didn’t write a single note of music for organ, making this event more than a passing curiosity.

The concert was as odd as its description. Fortunately, both performers were in good form.

Filsell spent most of his time at the piano, showing off remarkable virtuosity in taxing music. Potts confined himself to the console of the Casavant pipe organ (said to be the largest in Canada), teasing out some fine colours and textures, but on occasion leaving the impression of not being entirely at one with the instrument.

The two centrepieces of the programme were the most successful: Filsell dispatching George Gershwin’s piano-solo version of Rhapsody in Blue with breathtaking ease; and elegantly tossing off the piano solo part of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with Potts performing his own organ reduction of the orchestral score.

A pipe organ is meant to mimic orchestral sounds, but despite many effective moments, Potts’ hard work only served to underline how all of the instrument names on an organ’s stoplist are more metaphor than reproduction. The accompaniment wasn’t bad; it just sounded a bit lumpen at times.

It’s very possible that the reverberant acoustics at Metropolitan United were acting against the performers, who threw great handfuls of notes out in the air from beginning to end.

Filsell’s own transcription of Rachmaninov’s Etude-tableau, Op. 39, No. 9, showed in its overly soft contours that even the most resourceful organist can’t find anything to mimic the piano, which is a percussion instrument.

And, thanks to all their florid virtuosity deployed in the resonant church, Filsell’s piano transcriptions of four Rachmaninov songs frequently lost their melodic contours.

There was one more piece on offer: Potts’ transcription for organ of the ever-popular Liebesträume No. 3 by Franz Liszt — a composer who did write for the organ. This worked nicely as Potts carefully changed tone colours throughout, turning the composition into the aural equivalent of looking through a kaleidoscope.

The two performers showed off remarkable technique and guts in coming up with such a programme. It was a great way to get a new perspective on well-worn music — which is something that every event that calls itself a festival should try to do.

Note that Nigel Potts presents an hour-long lecture on the organ music of the 19th and 20th centuries at Metropolitan United Church on Saturday (May 12) at 10 a.m.

There are several more concerts coming up next week in Organix 12 — all devoted exclusively to the full breadth of music written specifically for the pipe organ. You can find all the details here.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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