Review: Nathan Laube

May 3, St. Bridget Catholic Church

If you’ve never heard Franz Liszt’s Sonata in B minor played on the organ, you probably shouldn’t and, in any event, don’t need to. Julius Reubke, a short-lived student of Liszt, wrote the organ analogue to the master’s piano epic in his Sonata in C minor (“The 94th Psalm”).

Organists and aficionados of the instrument view Reubke’s sonata with a mixture of affection and awe. The piece is little-known to others, even those with extensive exposure to 19th-century German romantic music. That’s not likely to change, because the sonata does not lend itself to piano transcription or to orchestration; and, like the Liszt B minor, it demands an interpreter with extraordinary technique and high-romantic sensibility.

Nathan Laube, an organist based at the Eastman School of Music and boasting a high profile internationally, delivered a masterful and memorable account of the Reubke in the season finale of the Repertoire Recital Series of the Richmond chapter of the American Guild of Organists.

Reubke’s music is quasi-programmatic, a line-by-line sonic evocation of the grim, martial text of the psalm (“O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth”), a dark drama alternating between mournful introspection and assertive, turbulent episodes. Laube emphasized those contrasts of mood and atmosphere, and summoned a full range of tone colors and voicings from St. Bridget’s organ, a romantic-style instrument built in 2013 by John-Paul Buzard.

Laube underscored Reubke’s harmonic and structural debts to Liszt by playing the sonata immediately after a transcription of “Funérailles” from Liszt’s “Harmonies poétiques et religieuses,” a similarly evocative elegy to friends executed following an abortive Hungarian revolt against the Habsburg monarchy in 1848.

That, in turn, followed a transcription of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” Overture (both transcriptions were by Laube), one of a number of Wagner pieces favored by organists in the 19th century – even though, as Laube noted in introductory remarks, the composer wrote no music for the instrument.

In all three works, Laube put into practice his determination to “turn over every rock” in exploring the strikingly varied tone colors, textures and sound effects of the Buzard instrument. While doing so, he displayed seemingly tireless virtuosity, a keen ear for musical drama and an unerring sense of phrasing.

The opening selection, J.S. Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, appeared to be the odd piece out in this German romantic program, but served as a fitting prelude as played by Laube, in a reading that fully explicated the music’s compositional rigor but also made of it a tragic utterance worthy of King Lear.

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