Performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s transcendent 18 Chorale Preludes don’t come along every day. Audiences rarely hear this music, especially in its massive entirety. And only sporadically do listeners crowd into churches for organ recitals, as many musicians lament. But organist J. Reilly Lewis, director of the Washington Bach Consort and of the Cathedral Choral Society, drew a capacity audience Sunday at the National Presbyterian Church in Northwest Washington.
Lewis plumbed the depths of the Great 18, a reworking of Bach’s earlier music and one of the summits of his art. The church’s Aeolian-Skinner organ is a magnificent instrument with 6,000 pipes and five keyboards, well-suited for the spacious sanctuary.
Together with the Consort singers and instrumentalists, Lewis brought Bach’s music to life in a revelatory performance, underlining its expressive heights and countless array of emotional shades — words expressed ingeniously in the music. These preludes were a perfect match for an organ having vast sonic resources — including stops like the glistening flutes, the reedy crumhorn and Rohrschalmei.
Lewis preceded each group of organ settings with the Consort singing the four-part chorales — based on old Lutheran hymn tunes and even Gregorian chants — that Bach lavishly elaborated on an epic scale in his solo organ pieces.
Lewis enriched the performances of each prelude with his informative and inspired comments that were mercifully brief and devoid of pedantry.
Porter is a freelance writer.