Joshua Nichols at 1st Presbyterian Church, April 3, 2017

Nichols began with a solid rendition of Buxtehude's Prelude in f# Minor (BuxWV146), played precisely with well-balanced registrations appropriate to the period. This included occasional light 16' manual sounds as well as light 32' sounds added to the pedal reeds.

Next was a vigorous performance of Bach's Toccata, Adagio & Fugue in C major (BWV564). The toccata has some stunning solo pedal passages, in someways reminescent of some of Buxtehude's works, as pointed out in the quite extensive program notes. The fugue - lighter and faster, was closed effectively; it has sometimes seemed to me that the ending is abrupt and lacking the final buildup one finds in some of Bach's other works (such as the St. Anne's fugue). But tonight Nichols made the approach to the end seem more satisfying than usual.

The Adagio (between the Toccata and the Fugue) deserves some separate discussion. In the program notes Nichols wrote at length about meaning and music, contending that the program consisted of absolute music; that is, without reference to texts, narratives, and bodily movements such as dance, and should be enjoyed just for itself. I wholeheartedly agree with that, with one exception, the Adagio. The starting point is the use - in the pedals - of a "walking bass," common in the baroque era. Bach is well-know for using symbolism - for example, a descending line to indicate approaching death. So it was that many years ago my mind abruptly attached the narrative of Jesus' ministry and death to the Adagio. I do not normally try to make this kind of connection. but there it was: Jesus traveled all over Palestine on foot (the walking theme), preaching (the extended solo), began a descent into chaos (in measure 22, with a descending solo passage), endured a terrifying week (great musical tension) and was tortured to death, which finally brought peace (the tension resolved in a C major chord). This tense passage has always - in my mind - required a large registration, but is often played on soft flutes. Nichols - to his great credit, and for whatever reasons, played it appropriately, with reeds added to increase the sound and emphasize the tension, which served to make the final resolution all the more memorable.

In a 100-year fast forward, Nichols next played Franck's Chorale in b Minor, a romantic work, unrelated to any narrative (except perhaps to thoughts of impending death - again mentioned in the program notes). There were large and rich sounds throughout, appropriate to the period, with many dynamic changes, mostly through registrational manipulation, but some using swell-boxes. The piece did sometimes seem episodic, but that is inherent in its structure.

Reger's Benedictus, Op. 59, No. 9, followed; a gentle piece, with flutes; a larger midsection, and a quiet return to the end, a welcome "calm before the storm" of the closing work, Reger's monumental Introduction and Passacaglia in d Minor (Reger did not give this or other later works opus numbers.). While this piece was clearly "absolute" music, there was a faint structural connection to a Spanish dance from around 1600, the Chaconne, with a repeated melodic theme, and called a "passacaglia" when the theme was in the bass line (pedals). That melody, in 3/4 time, was shown in a brief score included in the program notes, and matched what I had heard; although relatively soft at first, it eventually got bigger. With each repetition the hands provided a new "companion" passage (somehow the word "accompaniment" doesn't seem quite right here). These "companion" sections were varied, often very complex, and often quite large in sound, and made a perfect vehicle for musical passion, which Nichols provided in abundance. It was the highlight of the evening.

Reger's organ music is not easily performed. There is a story - possibly apocryphal - that he and his friend Karl Straube (a concert organist who became an advocate of Reger's organ works) had a continuing contest: Straube claiming that he could play whatever Reger composed, while Reger claimed he could write music too difficult for Straube! The obvious result is that much of Reger's music is very difficult. Indeed the contemporary German organ-builder Wilhelm Sauer considered Reger's works unplayable.

Nichols also composes, and we look forward to hearing him again, playing some of his own work. His discussion in the program notes of "absolute" music was an interesting approach to a very complicated subject. In ancient Egypt all music had a societal function: Religious, Reproductive, or Regal (i.e. patriotic). The concept of "music for its own sake" is a much more recent idea, to which we hope to return, via The Continuo.

We also are grateful to 1st Presbyterian Church for sharing its great organ with our community.

Glenn A. Gentry