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A huge audience filled almost all of the 1236 seats in Kresge Auditorium last Thursday for an organ recital by E. Power Biggs. This was the last of the 1958 series of Special Events in the Arts, sponsored jointly by the Harvard and M.I.T. summer schools for the past three years.
Biggs concluded the 1956 series too, and the opinion I expressed in these pages at that time still stands. For Biggs has not mended his ways. Avoiding all long legato lines, he plays everything in a jerky, jabbing fashion. His approach would be better suited to chopping ice or dicing carrots. One of the great virtues of the organ is its ability to sustain a tone indefinitely without losing strength; yet Biggs is reluctant to make use of the advantage, and quits even the last not of a phrase almost the instant it sounds.
His manual and pedal dexterity, however, is admirable. Except for the final number on Thursday's program, he played with great accuracy: there were fewer than a dozen slips of finger or toe--an unusually high batting average for an organ recital. Biggs chose to end with the celebrated Bach Toccata and Fugue in D-minor, which he has played thousands of times. Evidently he thought he knew it so well that it needed no advance brushing-up. The result was, to put it bluntly, a mess.
Biggs' choice of program was ill-advised. He began with no less than five lengthy sets of variations--by Pasquini, Valente, Soler, Sweelinck and Handel. The theme-and-variations format has produced more dull music than any other, from the Middle Ages to rock 'n' roll. And many of the greatest composers have failed at it. The high quality of the Valente and Sweelinck works was partially obscured by the numbing tediousness of the Pasquini and Soler. The Handel work--the so-called "Harmonious Blacksmith" set--comes from a harpsichord suite and does not belong on the organ, despite the glib statement in the program notes that the harpsichord is "interchangeable with the organ."
Also on the program were Mozart's Fantasia in F-minor, K. 608; and Handel's Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, in which Biggs failed to interpret properly the "French style" of the first movement. The best playing of the evening came in the sole modern work. Litanies, by Jehan Alain, tragically killed at 29 during the second World War.
The organ itself is a three-manual Holtkamp instrument with 2919 pipes. It speaks with fine clarity, but some of the ranks--especially the reeds--are insufferably harsh. Most of the pipes are exposed, and are grouped in front of, behind, to the right of, and above the player. If one sits in a certain part of the auditorium, one can hear the sounds coming from the different directional sources. At some times, Biggs intentionally chose registrations that made this added dimension extremely effective.
The audience was most enthusiastic, and obliged Biggs to play two encores. Why are musicians so reluctant to announce the titles of encores? Critics are expected to know every piece ever written, but the public is not. A number of people asked me afterwards what the encores were. For others who are curious, the first encore was William Byrd's Pavane for the Earl of Salisbury; the second was Claude Daquin's Noel No. 10, the only fine piece from his collection of twelve noels, each one a theme and variations. Please, Mr. Biggs, more variety and fewer variations!
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