Review of Thomas Ospital Recital
By Alan MacMillan
There has been something of a “moveable feast” for organ music lovers this Fall, featuring most recently the extraordinary gifts of Thomas Ospital, Organiste Titulaire of St. Eustache Church in Paris and organist-in-residence at Maison de la Radio (Radio France Concert Hall).
These gifts were on full display on Friday, October 13 at the console of the Austin organ of Trinity College Chapel, Hartford where Ospital offered a widely varied recital ranging from Bach and Mozart to a freely improvised four movement Symphony. Virtuosity, however, was accompanied by appropriate stylistic restraint. The latter was particularly evident in his performance of the Bach A minor Prelude and Fugue BWV 543, where tasteful moments of rubato were the more effective for a reluctance to “juice” the registration merely for effect. The same could be said for his fine performance of the Trio Sonata No. 2 in c minor.
The Mozart Fantasia in F minor K. 608 is a rarity and its inclusion in the recital a real treat. Originally written for mechanical organ in open score on four staves, a transcription (and not one that is easy to play) was necessary to make it playable by a single performer. This later work of Mozart, clearly revealing his then current passion for Handelian counterpoint, opens with a French overture. The characteristic dotted rhythm opening is followed by a fugue; then a return to the opening idea. A beautifully lyrical Andante follows and a final return of the opening overture figure concludes this marvelous work.
Another rarity on the program was a transcription of the early Debussy piano piece Danse-tarantelle styrienne (1890). Having only heard the piano version over the years, the Thierry Hirsch transcription proved a revelation. Ospital’s use of the myriad colors available on this great instrument was scintillating. As he mentioned in his spoken program notes, one can only wish that Debussy had written expressly for the organ.
The Sicilienne from Fauré’s incidental music for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pélleas et Mélisande is well known in transcriptions variously for solo flute, violin and viola with piano in addition to its original orchestral form. On the organ it is perhaps equally pleasing in its lyrical melodic beauty. The performance was most convincing in this regard.
It was pleasing to hear a work by Jehan Alain other than the popular “Litanies,” (although, in a sense, we heard the famous theme of that work embedded in the Duruflé “Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d’Alain” which followed on the program.) Ospital informed us that the “théme” in Alain’s “Variations sur in théme de Clement Jannequin” was not by Jannequin at all, but from an anonymous source. Nonetheless, it’s a captivating work: full of the innovative harmony and clear, spare, meticulous writing characteristic of this composer: unhappily a casualty of WWII at the age of only 29.
To end the program the artist was given a sealed envelope containing three themes upon which he agreed to improvise a four movement symphony. If memory serves, the three themes were “I’ve got rhythm” and “Summertime” by Gershwin and “I could have danced all night” by Loewe. After a few moments thought, Ospital launched into his improvisation. A haunting, mysterious opening perhaps approaching Messiaen in style, gave way to a fast movement of amazing complexity and virtuosity, making a unifying idea from the initial motive from “I’ve got rhythm.” The second movement was a scherzo which took the form of a French Galop with a bit of the flavor of Poulenc. A slow movement and a blazing finale finished an astonishing feat of improvisation; a performance rewarded by an extended standing ovation.
While encores are generally considered out of bounds for concert reviews, I cannot resist mentioning the unidentified piece with which the appreciative audience was rewarded. Very close in style, I thought, to Mendelssohn, and played with such clarity and confidence that I was convinced of its authenticity, I was astonished to find out later that it too, was an improvisation!