Five years ago, Daniel Jaeckel completed his Op. 45 organ, a 54-stop, 3,605-pipe mechanical-action instrument that’s the visual centerpiece of Emory University’s Emerson Concert Hall. Like most large pipe organs in America today, the Jaeckel Op. 45 is designed to be versatile while also claiming authenticity in a variety of disparate musical styles, from the compact and tactile sounds of the Baroque to Charles-Marie Widor’s resplendent romanticism.
Yet the instrument makes the best fit in music by Johann Sebastian Bach — at least under the fingers and feet of Timothy Albrecht, Emory’s official university organist for almost 30 years.
For the opening of Emory’s free 2010-11 organ series Sunday afternoon, Albrecht strutted out in his summer concert finery — including bright red socks, so you couldn’t miss his pedaling — and offered an hour-long concert titled “B.A.C.H. Live.” Beautifully symmetrical, the program held Bach’s transcription of Vivaldi’s lyrical Concerto in A minor in the middle, flanked by selections from “the Well-Tempered Clavier” and, at the beginning and end, shorter and showier works.
Albrecht opened with a Sinfonia (BWV 29) and a familiar chorale from the cantata “Sleepers Awake” (BWV 645) and immediately staked his interpretive ground: lucid, stately, just slow enough so that every thread of counterpoint is clear and edifying. He’s not especially poetic or personal when he plays; for the listener, satisfaction comes not from the joys of (re)discovering music but from a sense of inevitability and high purpose.
In pieces from Book 1 of “the Well-Tempered Clavier,” not surprisingly, Albrecht communicated more effectively in the strict fugues than in the more free-spirited preludes, which profit from a dose of fantasy and seeming spontaneity.
Yet what counts perhaps most for organists is the player’s skill at imagining what combinations of stops best convey the sound and spirit of the music. No one else knows this instrument as well as Albrecht, who conjured remarkable and, in the context, unexpected sounds from the great organ.
In the “W.T.C.’s” Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp Major, for example, Albrecht included a flute-like stop called Quintadena — described by a visiting organist, Paul Jacobs, as “a very lonely sound” — which imbued the music with an affecting melancholy. Later, in the organ chorale “Now Thank We All Our God” (BWV 79), Albrecht played the hymn melody with the Vox Humana stop, a reedy, vibrating and haunting voice from the beyond.
He closed with a flourish, the Prelude and Fugue in A minor (BWV 543), a virtuoso showpiece of rich layers and very Lutheran sobriety — playing up one edifying facet of the Jaeckel Op. 45.