Agile finger, footwork at the organ

REVIEW / CONCERT

VCH ORGAN SERIES

Pavel Kohout, organ

Victoria Concert Hall

Monday

The concert got off to a splendid start, with Czech organist Pavel Kohout beginning his recital with Buxtehude's Toccata In F.

This is the kind of music which suits the Victoria Concert Hall organ perfectly and is clearly an area of the repertory in which Kohout feels completely at ease. His was a crisp, neat and invigorating performance.

It ended very well too, with music by the French composer Widor.

Kohout clearly appreciated that this is an organ which in its wildest dreams can never pass off as being French.

He delivered a most enjoyable account of the finale from the Second Symphony in which his agile fingerwork, some athletic manual changing and an ideal choice of speed provided the interest which, on most other organs, comes from the spectacular sounds of the instrument itself.

It was in the middle that things became somewhat uneven.

Unwisely deciding against an original Bach organ work, Kohout instead gave the audience a clumsy transcription of the Third Brandenburg Concerto.

With its fussy registration effects, numerous clunking stop changes and cloudy inner detail, this showed how sensible Bach had been not to arrange the original for organ.

The one magical moment - the second movement played on a delicate flute and tremulant - was lost because nobody had told the audience that there were actually three movements.

They applauded enthusiastically after the first movement thinking it was all over.

Few who were at Thomas Trotter's opening recital of the Esplanade's Klais back in 2002 will forget his spellbinding, brilliantly virtuoso performance of George Thalben-Ball's Variations On A Theme Of Paganini For Pedal Solo.

Kohout offered a work with the same title, but by a virtually unknown composer called Kummer (Kohout seems to be the only person who plays his organ music), requiring far less in the way of pedallic virtuosity or musical interest.

All the same, this was an impressive exhibition of pedal playing, even if to achieve it Kohout kept both his hands so tightly clasped to the organ bench that it required someone else to pull out the stops and press some of the extra pedals.

Two pieces by 19th-century French composer Theodore Dubois completed the programme.

There was a surprisingly delicate and fleet-fingered account of the Toccata in which, as with the Widor, Kohout showed great musical judgment in avoiding any tendency to get the organ to sound French.

The very quiet In Paradisum was rather less successful, the organ sounding surprisingly raspy and Kohout himself, possibly foot- weary after the Kummer, somewhat accident-prone in the foot department.

As ever with the VCH organ series, the recital was attended by a very large and enthusiastic audience who, on this occasion, demanded - and got - an encore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2017, with the headline 'Agile finger, footwork at the organ'. Print Edition | Subscribe