Sunday, November 23, 2008

Music review: Michael Unger, organist

By Greg Stepanich

There are many neglected rooms in the mansion of music, when it comes to the average listener, and one of those rooms holds music for the organ.

This is unfortunate primarily because there is a rich and fascinating literature for the instrument, and on Sunday afternoon one of its rising young practitioners showed an audience at the First Presbyterian Church in Delray Beach how diverse that repertoire really is.

Michael Unger, a Canadian musician now living in upstate New York, appeared as a featured recitalist under the auspices of the Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami chapters of the American Guild of Organists. He proved to be a marvelous player, with fleet fingers and feet, a willingness to apply wide dynamic range in the sanctuary, and a strong, puckish sense of programming.

A good case in point was the piece that opened the second half, the Prelude et Danse Fuguee of the blind French organist Gaston Lataize, written in 1964. This is a wonderfully weird work, with an opening that lurches and stumbles across a harmonic field full of prickly plants and a disjunct melodic line that gets entrusted to the pedals. In that half Unger also programmed the Toccata alla Rumba, a clever piece by the Austrian composer Peter Planyavsky in which the rumba rhythm was topped by a slipping, sliding tune that sounded somewhat cartoonish, but none the less enjoyable for that.

Unger brought off both pieces in high style, as he did his entire program, which also included music of the German Baroque: The E minor Prelude and Fugue (BWV 548) of J.S. Bach, and the first theme-and-variations from Johann Pachelbel's Hexachordum Appollinis. He proved to be a strong Bach player, giving a forceful, majestic reading of this canonical masterwork, though it could have used a bit more shading and contrast in the fugue section.

In the Pachelbel, a much more delicate work than the Bach, Unger made full use of the varied registrations for each variation, though the whole thing did have a very appealing antique flavor. It served as a salutary reminder of how much of this composer's work has been overlooked in favor of the deathless D major canon.

But compelling variety was the order of the day for this recital, which also included a powerful passacaglia from one of the many organ sonatas of Josef Rheinberger (No. 8, Op. 132), played here with all-out Romantic tilt, and a sparkling, utterly French scherzo movement from the Second Symphony of Andre Fleury. That piece, a kind of perpetual-motion exercise, demonstrated Unger's ability to play an almost continual line of rising and falling scales throughout the piece and keep them smooth and unbroken.

The Canadian composer Hugh Bancroft's Pastorale of 1945 introduced a composer with a sense of modality and melody that recalled his early years in England, and Unger made a persuasive case for it. He closed his recital with three works by the Belgian composer and organist Joseph Jongen, and in this subset of the recital could be seen all of Unger's strengths again: sterling technique, a well thought-out concept of what the pieces were trying to say, and an ear for fresh repertoire.

Authoritative sources say only Jongen's organ music has any current hold in the repertory, and this is a shame. Here is a composer whose pieces have an engaging melodic profile and a good sense of narrative surprise; one isn't quite sure where the music is going, but is happy to go along for the ride. The Priere (op. 37, No. 4) has a lovely tune and a deeply meditative quality, and the Scherzetto (Op. 108, No. 1) had a light, bubbly theme that was closer in spirit to the meaning of the word scherzo — joke — than many other such pieces.

The recital closed with Jongen's Toccata, Op. 104, a big piece that summoned the spirit of Widor but also a had a sharp quality to its harmonies that was more forward-looking. Unger played the work with admirable strength and high spirits, and with untiring hands at the service of the toccata's always-on compositional motor.

Michael Unger is finishing his doctorate at the Eastman School, and it's clear he is already a very fine organist who undoubtedly has an impressive career ahead of him. And with adventurous, interesting programming like this, there should be no reason musically inquisitive audiences won't come out to hear him.

1 comment:

Clare Shore said...

I wasn't able to attend Mr. Unger's recital and so I thank you for the wonderful review, Greg!
It sounds as if living composers have a worthy and versatile advocate in him.

- Clare