Whatever happened to those good, old head-to-head competitions between composers or performers? Scarlatti once competed against Handel in Rome, ending in a draw on the harpsichord but Handel having the upper hand on the organ. Bach was scheduled to do musical battle with Louis Marchand, but the French organist fled before the meeting could take place. Mozart vied with Muzio Clementi before the emperor of Austria, who declared the match a tie.
A virtuoso contest of this sort would have been a great way to celebrate the installation of the new Rubenstein Family Organ in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. In our less competitive age, a recital series will have to do, and the inaugural version continued on Wednesday night with a concert by American organist Paul Jacobs. If the first concert in the series, back in October and featuring Cameron Carpenter, was about flamboyance, Jacobs offered a program, on the theme of “Music in Paris,” that was about refinement. Seeing these two artists, who represent opposite temperaments in many ways, compete with one another, rather than in series, would be interesting to say the least.
Jacobs has just as much technical acumen as Carpenter and was just as precocious, but he followed a more conventional path to fame, having been appointed when he was still in his 20s to the faculty of the Juilliard School (where he was Carpenter’s teacher). Where Carpenter played mostly over-the-top arrangements, Jacobs played works composed for the instrument by some of the giants of the French organ school in the 19th and 20th centuries. Naturally, for a performer who has memorized the complete works of both Bach and Olivier Messiaen (and played them in marathon concert series), Jacobs played the entire program from memory.
The showpieces at the start and finish of the program were plenty showy, with a rather fast rendition of the “Finale” from Louis Vierne’s Symphony No. 1 to open and a Lisztian approach to Alexandre Guilmant’s lengthy and bombastic first sonata to close. What made them both stand out, though, were the softer touches, lighter registrations that brought out subtleties in the Vierne, an inventive selection of flute and reed stops that kept the slow movement of the Guilmant varied in tone, as well as a registration for the chorale section in that movement that sounded like a choir of men’s voices.
More expressive moments, the real high points of this recital, came in the surprising middle selections, beginning with a bittersweet reading of Nadia Boulanger’s F minor prelude. Marcel Duruflé’s shadowy Suite, Op. 5, was shot through with gloom in the plodding theme of the first movement, lush registrations in the slow movement, and a tour de force of the hands in the third-movement toccata, with a pleasing hint of the fandango.
Three brief selections from Messiaen’s “Livre du Saint Sacrement” showed the particular mastery Jacobs has over this composer’s works — his recording of this collection having won him a Grammy in 2011. The tinkling bells of the Zimbelstern stop were magical in “Le Dieu Caché,” the amassed cluster chords in “La Présence Multipliée” induced stained-glass-color hallucinations in my brain, and the repetitions and rhythmic stretching of the “Prière Après la Communion” seemed to suspend time. Jacobs even took aim, although probably not intentionally, at Carpenter’s territory in his encore, a circus-organ transcription of the “Marche Militaire Française” by Camille Saint-Saëns, from the “Suite Algérienne.”
Downey is a freelance writer.