“Grand Prix Bach de Lausanne”
5th International Organ Competition
Lausanne Bach Festival, 17-21 November 2015
The “Grand Prix Bach de Lausanne” organ competition has taken place every four or five years since 1997, although the actual ‘Grand Prix’ has only been awarded on two of the four previous occasions. The stated intention of the competition is to attract talented organists from all over the world who are passionate about the music of Bach, his predecessors, precursors and his contemporaries. Competitors are told that they need to be able to express the specific language of each style of organ music, and will be judged as to their musicality, choice of registration, technique, quality and order of the programme, style, and originality. Unusually for such competitions, there are no age limits. This is a big investment for the competitors. They are expected to be in Lausanne for up to eight days (arriving three days before the first round), and have to pay their own travel and accommodation costs, as well as a registration fee of 200 Swiss Francs. Unless they live locally, only those winning one of the three main prizes can hope to recover their costs.
A pre-selection round was judged from submitted recordings. According to the rules, ten candidates should have been chosen, “notwithstanding exceptional circumstances”. I don’t know what the exceptional circumstances were on this occasion, but only eight were selected, with seven of those attending the final rounds in Lausanne. The first round was held (on Tuesday 17 November) in St Paul’s church on its two manual, 25 stop, organ in the North German style of Arp Schnitger. Candidates were asked to play a 30 minute programme consisting of a free choice of pieces from the North German repertoire of the Hamburg Praetorius family, Scheidemann, Tunder, Weckmann, Buxtehude, Böhm, Bruhns, etc., together with one or more pieces by Bach.
My general thoughts on this round was that it was a shame, and rather surprising, that candidates were not more adventurous in their choice of music, particular from the earlier repertoire. For example, we had three versions of the well-known Bach Fantasia and Fugue in g minor (BWV542), all played on similar Pleno registration, and several well-known pieces by Buxtehude. Considering the nature of the organ, I wonder if more attention could have been made on Bach’s earlier works, composed under the influence of the North German organs of the likes of Schnitger, rather than his latter, more mature works composed under the influence of the very different Central German organs. One example that we did hear was the Praeludium and Fuge in C (BWV566a). The three candidates that impressed me were number 7, who played Scheidemann’s chorale fantasia Ein fest Burg ist unser Gott and Hieronymus Praetorius’s Magnificat germanice very convincingly, alongside two particularly appropriate Bach pieces, including the rarely played early Praeludium con fuga in a, BWV551; candidate number 3, with a Scheidemann Magnificat and the BWV566a mentioned above, and candidate number 6, with a nice interpretation of the monumental Bruhns G major Praeludium.
Five candidates (given different numbers) were selected to go through to the second round on Thursday 19th in the Église de Villamont and its Gottfried Silbermann style organ (two manuals, 14 stops). They were asked to play a 30 minute programme of one of two Walther concertos (in A after Gentili or in B after Albinoni) plus one or pieces by Froberger, Strungk, Kerll, Pachelbel, Muffat, and Fischer together with one or more pieces by Bach. Again, we had two performances of a well-known Bach piece, the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C (564).
Two players particularly impressed me, numbers 4 and 5, the former with a challenging programme that included an excellent performance of the notoriously difficult Bach Vater unser im Himmelreich (BWV 682), a complex trio sonata with the chorale melody threaded through it in canon. Both players demonstrated good articulation, accuracy and a fine sense of pulse, as did candidate 1. Candidate 3’s playing was rather rushed and relentless, with several note slips and a rather heavy touch, to the extent that the action of the organ became audible through the sound of full organ.
The final of the competition was a curious affair. All three candidates had to play the same piece, given the title of a Bach “Concerto for organ positive”, but better known as the oboe concerto BWV 1053a, but also appearing, in a different key, as a harpsichord concerto, both seemingly stemming from an earlier piece, now lost. The first two of the three movements also appear in Cantata 169, with the final movement appearing in Cantata 49 (in a different key), all with a solo organ part. It is not so much the source complexities of the compulsory piece that concerned me, but the fact that, having reached the final, the three finalists had no chance to play a proper organ piece on a proper organ. Baroque organ concertos are rare, and are not really a comprehensive judge of an all-round ‘early music’ organist that I would have thought the competition would have wanted to encourage. Amazingly, in the circumstances, the marks and comments that the finalists got in the first two rounds were not taken into account in the final judgement, which was made solely on the performance in the ‘organ concerto’. While there were certainly matters of interpretation and technical skill involved in the ‘organ concerto’, I do not believe this is the way to judge the final of an organ competition. In any case, of the 12 judges, only three were present at all three of the rounds – although, like the audience members, they would not have known which competitors had which numbers in any of the rounds.
The final took place in the concert hall of the Casino de Montbenon on Saturday 21st November. The three versions of the organ concerto were incorporated into a concert by the Collegium Musicum de Lausanne, who also played three of the Brandenburg Concertos (Nos 2, 4 and 6) with varying degrees of success and accompanied by some rather unpleasantly anarchic tuning. There were some good solo instrumentalists, notably David Staff, trumpet, Patrick Beaugiraud, oboe, Andrew Locatelli, flute, and Olivia Canturioni and Markus Hoffmann, violins. But the overall performance was rather dull, with little sense of rhetoric, subtlety or shading. The harpsichord continuo was emphatic and unimaginative, and the cello sounded particularly lumpy.
For their Bach ‘organ concerto’, the three finalists played a seven-stop chamber organ, with each stop divided into bass and treble (photo shows stop levers). Unlike the earlier rounds, the players were visible to the jury, although no names were given. The first finalist played with a reasonable sense of articulation and an obvious understanding of ornamentation. During the slow movement, an oboe played the part added in the cantata version for an alto voice, producing a rather awkward clash of tone and, occasionally, notes with the organ part. This didn’t happen with the other two finalists, so I assume it was the idea of the organist (PS. I have since understood that this was the suggestion of the conductor, which only one candidate agreed to.). The second finalist added a few more additional flourishes to the melodic line and was also effective in adding ornaments, although there were a few note slips. He also somehow managed to produce an audible chiff from the stop he chose for the central movement, perhaps suggesting a slightly heavy touch and/or too rapid an attack on notes. Curiously, at the end, he took one bow and then walked off without acknowledging the conductor or the orchestra, something both of the other finalists made a point of, as well they should. I would have thought that aspects of performance etiquette like this would have been something that the jury would have particularly keen to take into account.
The third finalist took the pace slightly slower than the others, and played with a much better sense of articulation and definition of the musical lines. They also made some attractive and appropriate additions to the melodic line, including a nice little cadential flourish. None of the three organists gave the impression of taking the lead in the orchestral interpretation, although the third finalist was rather better at imparting a sense of rhetoric and sensitivity to the overall performance.
I rarely agree with competition juries, and this was no exception. I placed finalist three as a very clear winner, with finalists one and two following, in that descending order. The audience agreed with my first choice. The jury put the finalists in the opposite order to me, awarding the first prize to finalist two, second prize to finalist one and third prize to my first choice, finalist three. The prizes were 5000, 3000 and 1500 Swiss Francs respectively, with an audience prize of 500 Francs. And those prizes went to Vincent Bernhardt, first, Emmanuel Arakéelian, second, and Olga Papykina third and audience prizes.