The second of this year’s Proms organ recitals was given by Thierry Escaich, the organist of St-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris, a performer continuing the centuries-long tradition of Parisian organist composers whose work is grounded in improvisation. After a rather rushed and incoherent improvisation “in the Baroque Style” (not a style that I recognised, but the audience seemed to love it), Thierry Escaich gave a sensitive reading of Bach’s well-known Chorale Prelude Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, ornamenting both the accompanying voices as well as the already well-ornamented treble line. This was followed by Escaich’s own take on the same chorale with his Evocation III, written for an organ competition in Graz. It started with an almost contrapuntal exposition of the theme over a low pedal rumble, interrupted by very high and ethereal sounds from the depths of the organ. It then followed an arch form, with a huge crescendo taking us from the mystical to the frankly violent (taking in a wide range of organ textures and colours on the way) before subsiding back to finish with a tremulous exploration of the extremes of the organ’s compass.

Thierry Escaich © BBC / S Bianchi Accord Universal
Thierry Escaich
© BBC / S Bianchi Accord Universal

Three masters of the organ Romantic movement following, with a substantial work by César Franck sandwiched between tiny examples of Reger and Liszt – both composers usually known for the enormous length of their works. The Reger Lite was his 1902 chorale prelude Jauchz, Erd, und Himmel, juble hell, a flurry of notes over the chorale theme that owed its structural form to Pachelbel, although its harmonic and textural intensity are more the love child of Brahms and Wagner. The musical meat of the afternoon’s programme was César Franck’s evocative and powerful Chorale in B minor, the second of a wonderful set of three Chorales written just before Frank’s death. These three works form a culmination to Frank’s remarkable life, and his revitalisation of French music from the 19th century doldrums into the important 20th century school. Escaich emphasised the rhapsodic and episodic fantasy style of the piece and produced some very French sounds from the massive Albert Hall organ, although he could not resists making the principal climax brutally loud. The Liszt Lite was his Adagio in D flat major, a transcription by Liszt of one of his Consolation piano pieces setting a melody by his patron, the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia, sister of the Tsar and wife of the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach.

The concert ended with a 12-minute improvised Triptych on Themes by Liszt, the two themes having been given to Escaich just before the concert started. The audience weren’t told what the themes were, but those close enough to the Radio Three box could hear the announcer boom into his microphone that they were the March from Liszt’s 2nd Piano Concerto and a passage from the Legend of St Francis of Paulo walking on the Water, both works played earlier in the Proms. A strong rhythmic pulse featured from the start (a characteristic of the music of Eben) - indeed, it became something of a game to recognise the influence of many composers as the work developed. This was followed by a tenor melody accompanied by tinkles until a rather jovial and flighty passage and more tinkles led to a build up of momentum whose runaway train impetus would have made a good accompaniment to a silent film (something that Escaich has in fact done). Am I being overly sceptical to suggest that this sounded like an all-purpose structural and musical form within which most submitted improvisation themes could quite easily be incorporated? It was certainly a long way in style and mood from the improvisations and compositions of the many outstanding 20th century French organists, from Messiaen and Tournemire onwards. If you read this in time, you can judge for yourself by listening to the concert on the BBC’s iPlayer. Thierry Escaich’s encore was a scrappy and bombastic version of a movement from a Handel organ concerto.