Martin Baker organ recital – Johann Sebastian Bach and improvisations

Prelude and Fugue in E-flat, BWV552 (St Anne)

Improvisation on Bach’s ‘St Anne’ Prelude and Fugue

Fantasia in G, BWV572

Improvisation on Bach’s Fantasia BWV572

Passacaglia and Fugue in C-minor, BWV582

Improvisation on English Melodies

Martin Baker (Royal Albert organ)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 1 August, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

“Due to Covid” – an overworked mantra for these distracted times – this Proms organ recital was to have been given by the Notre-Dame titulaire Olivier Latry, but the Parisian was replaced at short notice by Martin Baker, erstwhile Master of Music of Westminster Cathedral, with Baker offering three big Bach works going head-to-toe with three Baker improvisations. The Albert Hall arena was sparsely occupied, and if there were a logic to the ‘safe’ seating in the stalls, it was not immediately apparent. Most of the audience wore face-masks.

Baker’s confident organo pleno for the opening of the ‘St Anne’ Prelude was an unexpectedly poignant, ‘did-you-miss-me?’ moment, but thereafter in this long, many-sectioned work Baker dared to indulge its stately grandiloquence. It is one of Bach’s grandest, most optimistic organ works and Baker made sure we knew it. The fairly neutral lighting then melted into an infernal red for the first of Baker’s improvisations, this one on aspects of the St Anne music, ten minutes of punchy pedal ostinatos, minor-key debagging of the St Anne Meistersinger-like positivism and Bach’s recognisable shapes contorted by chromaticism. Devilish stuff.

Baker is a renowned improviser, and it is an aspect of craft that can make organists such complete musicians. You could really hear, as it were, Baker’s fingers (and feet) doing the talking. Sometimes in recitals I have had unworthy thoughts about spontaneity being elevated above its pay grade, but Baker sure knows how to layer and shade his thoughts, and the little, high-up chirrups that anticipated the start of Bach’s Fantasia in G BWV572 were a brief, witty pleasure. It was odd that Baker’s tempo for this opening – one of Bach’s most enchanting, jewel-like creations – rather muffled its playfulness and unpicked the effect of the long closing cadenza section, with a beautiful choice of registration I don’t think I’ve heard on this instrument. The lighting then changed to shocking pink for the next improvisation, with more flute-stop riffing on Bach’s shapes, this time flirting a bit with Messiaen and much playing around with Bach’s opening gambit, with a neat segue into the opening of Bach’s Passacaglia. This performance had everything you could want: stature, a restrained romantic fantasy and some marvellous registrations for the quieter variations.

Baker then really went for it in his finale, his Improvisation on English Melodies, the title doffing its cap to Bruckner’s for one of the many improvisations the Austrian composer played for the Albert Hall organ’s elaborate inaugural festival in 1871. Baker’s knitted together the big ‘St Anne’ chorale in its full English Hymnal version of ‘Oh God, our help in ages past’ (Isaac Watts’s text a powerful expression of recent and current woes), the march section of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No.1, ‘Nimrod’, and a few bars of the Coronation Street theme. Interestingly, Baker did not include the march’s middle section, that Last Night hurdle which has recently given some conductors the vapours. Apart from giving the instrument a mighty good seeing-to, Baker’s skill embraced everything from trauma to hope, and very thrilling and satisfying it was.

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