Music Review: Bach's Great Organ Mass at National Presbyterian Church

Powerful pedaler: J. Reilly Lewis.
Powerful pedaler: J. Reilly Lewis. (Courtesy Cathedral Choral Societ - Courtesy Cathedral Choral Societ)
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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A capacity audience filled the spacious sanctuary of National Presbyterian Church on Sunday for an electrifying performance of Bach's Great Organ Mass by J. Reilly Lewis (alternating at times with Scott Dettra on the church's magnificent Aeolian-Skinner instrument) and the chamber chorus of the Washington Bach Consort, which Lewis directs.

Not meant for a church service in real time, the huge work follows the order of the Lutheran Mass as the composer, also a celebrated Leipzig organist, knew it. The early Lutheran church service adheres basically to the Catholic liturgy, Martin Luther being, after all, a Catholic priest. But Luther substituted German for Latin and incorporated Protestant hymns, some taken from Gregorian chants, for the congregation to sing. Bach's work opens with the three-part Kyrie (a call for God's mercy), a Gloria (in praise of God), an affirmation of the Ten Commandments, a Credo (a statement of Christian belief), the Lord's Prayer and additional sections.

But knowing the structure alone doesn't tell it all. You don't have to know German or what a Mass is to enjoy the Great Organ Mass. Bach intended it specifically for "amateur music lovers and professional musicians." This piece is the jewel of jewels, at once glorious to hear and architecturally astonishing as it winds its way through an unbelievable mixture of styles and forms. Unfortunately, in his pre-concert lecture, Bach scholar Michael Marissen repeatedly described this work as "turgid." To the contrary, there are times of enrapturing lyricism; of spellbinding chant, as well as invigorating hymns based on it; and of stupendously involved counterpoint (lines imitating each other) in the organ pieces. More than once, all these elements interact simultaneously. And, in the organ sections, Lewis's feet virtually danced on the pedals, most astonishingly in a six-part psalm setting, where both feet had separate but related lines.

-- Cecelia Porter

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