Making sense of the manuals: The VIII International Organ Festival “Mariinsky”

Making sense of the manuals: The VIII International Organ Festival “Mariinsky”

The New Year has come and in 2021 Mariinsky Theatre continues to impress with its programming, and the security of being able to see concerts and hear music begins to set in. The VIII edition of International Organ Festival ‘Mariinsky’ (its artistic director being the renowned French organist Thierry Escaich) also duly took place over five evenings in January 2021. The organ at Mariinsky Theatre being a French one (while organs came from Germany to other locations in Saint Petersburg), the Festival was programmed as a metaphoric competition between Russian and French organists. Just by coincidence, it turned out to be also a ‘duel’ between women and men, as three French male organists represented the rich tradition of their country. And indeed, we learned a lot about this tradition, including the practice of improvisation of which both three men (Thierry Escaich, David Cassan and Thomas Ospital) proved to be virtuoso specialists.

The organ is usually an important architectural, as well as musical part of the concert hall, if it is lucky to possess one (not every concert hall in the world does). The organ at Mariinsky Theatre was brought from Strasbourg in 2009 and had been built by the French firm Alfred Kern et fils, with Daniel Kern personally visiting St Petersburg to check its mechanics in 2010. It was the acoustician of Mariinsky Concert Hall, the famous specialist Yasuhisa Toyota (who has helped with acoustics in dozens of concerts halls around the world) that advised to choose this master and this type of organ for the particular space that is Mariinsky Concert Hall. Since 1 October 2009 when the first organ concert was played, many international and Russian performers have been testing its sound and adapting to the instrument.

Thierry Escaich.  Picture by Natasha Razina

Did you know that it is an ongoing task of the organists to study each instrument they play on and change their way of presenting the music according to it? Thomas Ospital who opened the Festival, took 10 hours of rehearsals to work out registrations (that control the timbre of sound) and stops of Kern organ. Mariinsky organ also has a movable console, and two performers — Ospital and Escaich — chose to play in the middle of a stage surrounded by the audience, while the organ sounds were produced somewhere above. Actually, an organ performance makes you discover the space in a different way — I tried all dispositions around the concert hall, including close to the instrument itself, sideways and straight in front of it at the back of the stalls. You almost think of the organ as a live instrument, you are amazed at all the richness of its behaviours and moods, you expect it to do extraordinary things — and they indeed happen. As Thomas Ospital confesses, he is always transported into another world when he is playing, while the organ itself can tell him how to play it. Isn’t it magic indeed?

Thierry Escaich.  Picture by Natasha Razina

There was an offering of Bach at each recital, and indeed, this master of counterpoint will always remain the giant of organ music, and Olga Kotlyarova really impressed the public by dedicating the whole first half of her programme to Bach. Russian organist Marina Vyaizya also offered a Russian side to her programme, by playing transcriptions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Three wonders (an extract from The Tale of Tsar Saltan opera) and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances (an extract from Prince Igor opera). Interestingly, transcriptions of orchestral works and the possibility of playing them by a single person is also a unique feature of the instrument. For instance, David Cassan played the final three pieces from Stravinsky’s The Firebird, while Thomas Ospital did his own splendid rendering of Ravel’s Ma Mere L’Oye suite. The tempi are slightly slower than in the orchestral performance, but there is some exoticism in hearing the richness of the whole orchestra through only one instrument.

Olga Kotlyarova. Picture by Natasha Razina

The discovery of this Festival edition was the rich French organ tradition that was brought to Saint Petersburg. There were names of the famous organ composers of the 19th century like Alexandre Gilmant, Charles-Marie Widor, Alexandre Pierre François Boëly, Léon Boëllmann, Cesar Franck. Then there were names we know from their orchestral music: Ravel and Poulenc, with Escaich played the latter’s Concerto for organ, strings and timpani in collaboration with Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra led by Vladislav Karklin. Actually, each of the three musicians who came to perform in Saint Petersburg are also titular organists in their respective churches: those are Église Saint-Eustache (Paris) for Ospital, Église Saint-Étienne-du-Mont for Escaich and L’Oratoire du Louvre for Cassan. They come from the long tradition of French organ music (other famous names include Oliver Latry at Notre-Dame de Paris, Philippe Lefebvre, Jean-François Zygel, Pierre Pincemaille, etc.) and they are live inheritors of it. For instance, Ospital finished his recital with a mesmerizing Toccata from Maurice Duruflé’ Suite (1933) who preceded Escaich at his post in Église Saint-Étienne-du-Mont.

 Thierry Escaich. Picture by Natasha Razina

And in a most impressive feat of the whole Festival, each of the three organists improvised — and what unforgettable moments those were! David Cassan playfully used Russian folk song Valenki (Felt Boots) as his improvisation motif, and can you imagine what it was like hearing the famous tune on an organ? Escaich ran into a wild, dazzling galop through being inspired by Bartók’s Hungarian Dances that he performed in his own transcription just minutes before. Thomas Ospital showed all the turns and twists of his own temperament while doing his own, gaining a huge applause from the audience who had observed him heating the hall scolding hot. Indeed, the French art of organ improvisation is a unique skill, especially taking in consideration that every note an organist plays is heard in delay that increases if he or she is seated at the console and thus is meters apart from the instrument. Years of adaptation to this specifics of the instrument are needed, which is even more difficult during the spur of the moment music making. The VIII International Organ Festival Mariinsky left us with a feeling of longing to hear more and fantasizing about organ sounds and vibrations — we went home with a special organ aftertaste, for want of another term.

 Thierry Escaich. Picture by Natasha Razina