Review of Aaron Tan Recital

Review: Aaron Tan Recital

by Alan MacMillan

The latest in the Greater Hartford A.G.O. roster of events was a recital I almost did not attend but was so glad I did. Aaron Tan, the 2018 First Prize winner of the A.G.O. National Young Artists Competition, played a brilliant and fascinating program at the Newington Congregational Church on Sunday afternoon, November 10.

In addition to his accomplishments as a virtuoso organist, Mr. Tan is an accomplished violinist, and, if that were not enough, holds a Ph.D in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of Michigan. He is currently furthering his studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music while serving as Organ Scholar at the Church of the Resurrection in New York City.

Mr. Tan, without prior announcement, launched his recital with a dazzling performance of the Joseph Jongen Toccata, op. 104, surprising the audience since the program listed the Vierne 3rd Symphony, 1st movement as the opener. The artist explained afterward that he hoped no one minded the change since, at the last minute, he felt that the Toccata was a better choice to precede the Prière, also by Jongen (from Quatre Pièces, op. 37) and I’m sure the audience agreed.

The Prière featured the lovely soft strings of the church’s 1967 Moller, as re-built by the Austin Organ Service Company in 2007, and highlighted some of the most treasured harmonic, expressive qualities of this composer.

In a shift back to the technically brilliant, Jeanne Demessieux’s Notes répétées, No. 5 from Six Études, op. 5, featured rapidly repeated pedal notes, which, as noted by the artist in his spoken program notes, not all instruments are capable of executing even for the best of performers. Not content with the pedal fireworks, the manual writing employed bright, widely spaced broken chords producing an effect which was as entertaining as it was technically awe-inspiring.

Continuing in a more serious vein, the true centerpiece of the recital was the rarely heard Paysages Euskariens, (Landscapes of the Basque region), by Joseph-Ermend Bonnal. As Tan observed in his comments, Bonnal is unjustly overlooked as a composer, despite a respectably sizable output of compositions. As an organist he was the successor to Tournemire at St. Clotilde in Paris and much lauded by Louis Vierne. The Paysages have no doubt been neglected in part because the set was “runner-up” to Duruflé’s Veni Creator triptych in a contest sponsored by the Parisian Amis de l’orgue in 1930. Nonetheless, the set is a major work, the style being as close to truly impressionist as that evinced by any other composer of the time. The final of the three movements: Cloches dans le ciel (Bells in the heavens) is a true tour de force; a kind of mega-carillon with bell figures of differing speeds and characters played across the pedalboard as well as the manuals with a toute la force ending.

Tan, a Toronto-born Canadian himself and a champion of Canadian music, opened the second half of the recital with the Poème Symphoniqie pour le Temps de L’Avent by the contemporary French-Canadian organist and composer Rachel Laurin. Based partly on the Gregorian Chant melody known best from its presence in modern hymnals as Creator of the stars of night, the work began with a kind of cheeky, fluttering disguise of the melody in the high register. In combination with a Gregorian phrase from an Advent Kyrie, it then made its way through a number of variations to colorful effect.

A mid-recital “bon-bon” in this almost entirely Gallic program was the Farandole from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2 in a most effective transcription by Joel Hastings.

Both with the Bonnal suite and in his next work, the obscure Trio No. 5 in D by Johann Gottfried Fierling (1750-1813), Mr. Tan revealed an ongoing interest in uncovering unknown gems of the organ literature. This lone German work on the program was a highly melodic and charming piece very much in the classical style (as opposed to the baroque style associated with the Bach trio sonatas).

The Final from Vierne’s 6th and last symphony closed the program with its madcap send-up of French Symphonic writing; irreverent, almost jazzy at times and unlike any other well-behaved French final movements… especially with its Big Band chord of the added sixth at the end. Tan’s performance was a model of virtuosity.

The appreciative audience was rewarded by an encore: a Canadian composer’s take on Lord of the Dance, aka the Shaker tune, Simple Gifts, by John Burge from 1993. The setting consisted of a racing triplet moto perpetuo in the right hand with the folk melody joining in from time to time in the left. The composer’s model might perhaps have been the Nun freu euch, lieben Christen, BWV 734, chorale prelude of Bach. In any case, it was a cheerful closer to a most satisfying afternoon of organ playing.