In Moroney's Hands

Esther Criscuola de Laix on October 30, 2007
Everyone knows organists play their instrument with their feet as well as their hands. Pedals have long been a hallmark of the organ's sound and of the organist's skill — so much so that on most organs nowadays, a recital of music with little or no pedal could sound at best unimpressive, at worst a poor reflection on the performer. Such, however, was not the case at Davitt Moroney's latest Bay Area recital, at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Berkeley on Sunday. On his program of keyboard music by William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, and Thomas Tomkins, the pedals made only two brief appearances, but Moroney's legendary early keyboard skills and the unique sound of St. John's 31-rank Brombaugh organ allowed this little-heard repertoire to shine forth in all its splendor and variety. (All proceeds of the recital went to benefit St. John's organ recital fund and the Baroque Music Endowment Fund at UC Berkeley.) Moroney's program featured an engaging mix of sacred and secular pieces by Byrd and his two younger contemporaries, from solemn settings of liturgical chant to florid fantasies and toe-tapping dance variations. Purists might complain that most of the pieces on the program were "actually" harpsichord pieces, since this music belonged to the Elizabethan tradition of music for virginals (understood nowadays as a kind of twangy, rectangular harpsichord). In Byrd's day, however, as Moroney pointed out, virginals referred to keyboard instruments as a class — and besides, using organ meant showcasing the Brombaugh's astonishing array of historically informed tone colors. Moroney interspersed his music with engaging commentary on the composers, the music, the organ, and even the concert series.

Three Faces of Byrd

Byrd's music dominated with its sheer variety and quantity. Moroney is noted as an interpreter of Byrd, having won a Gramophone Award in 2000 for his recording of the complete keyboard works, and his recent recital showcased no fewer than three distinct sides of the composer. Byrd the clever musical engineer came to life in the two lengthy but quite different Fancies that formed the pillars of the opening set: one solemnly contrapuntal, the other (for my Ladye Nevell) more lighthearted and "fingery." Moroney played both with equal panache, expertly navigating the two pieces' constantly varying textures. Plainchant-based liturgical works from Byrd's younger years introduced a mellower, more meditative composer. These works are not his most flashy or virtuosic music, but have numerous beautiful moments of their own; the oh-so-English cross-relations of Clarifica me, Pater, for example, came deliciously to life on the Brombaugh's unequal temperament. The program closed with a flashy, dramatic Byrd — a Firebyrd, if you will, like the flaming phoenix on the cover of Moroney's recording. Byrd's bombastic side came through in three pieces imitating the sounds of battle, though the Brombaugh's trumpet stop, heard in The Trumpetts, sounded perhaps a bit too German. (English organs of Byrd's time had no such stops.) A Hornpipe, part dance, part fantasia, brought the recital to a festive conclusion. Even during this final tour de force, Moroney's energy showed no signs of ebbing. The pieces by Tomkins and Gibbons were perhaps less spectacular musically (Byrd is a tough act to follow), but performed with no less verve. The mesmerizing Ground by Thomas Tomkins, a Byrd student, deserves special mention, for in this piece more than any other on the program Moroney took full advantage of the organ's timbral arsenal. This meant changing stops every two or three repetitions of the bass line — challenging on an organ with no pistons — but Moroney pulled it off seamlessly for the most part (pun halfway intended). He brought in the pedals for the final bars, which, even if not absolutely in keeping with early English practice, made for a magnificently climactic ending.

Watch the Hands

Having studied with Moroney briefly myself at UC Berkeley, I have always been partial to his playing style, and cannot resist a few words about it here. He is one of those performers who makes his art look effortless. His demeanor at the organ console is cool, calm, and collected without being stiff. Unlike those players who weave and writhe at the keyboard in the name of "feeling the music," he makes no extraneous movements, maintaining bodily alignment and impeccable hand position even during the most florid runs and the tightest trills (which he can play on all 10 fingers). Watching him play is as much a treat as hearing him play, and early keyboard players in the audience can learn a great deal about good technique simply from keeping an eye on his hands. Recitals by Davitt Moroney at St. John's are always a special joy. Whatever repertoire he happens to be playing, his unparalleled knowledge and love of this unique instrument never fail to shine through. And who cares if this early, sometimes esoteric music would fall flat in a Grace Cathedral or a Palace of the Legion of Honor — for it shines in full power and brilliance on Brombaugh Op. 20. No feet required.

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