First Baptist Church of Washington, a large, LGBT-affirming house of worship just off Scott Circle, continued its Virtuoso Organist Series last weekend with another performer who truly lived up to the series’ name — Raul Prieto Ramirez, probably the best-known Spanish organist on the international scene today.
The afternoon was yet another perfect pairing of masterful musician with truly great instrument at his disposal — in this case, First Baptist’s mighty 118-rank double Austin organ, installed in 2013. Ramirez easily joined the ranks of other great performers who’ve played there in recent years such as Diane Bish, Ken Cowan and Hector Olivera. It’s a true treat to hear these world-famous virtuosos play what is arguably the finest organ in Washington and Ramirez was yet another home run for the series, masterfully managed by D.C. musical legend Lon Schreiber, organist and choirmaster at First Baptist. Sadly, attendance was not great (about 70), no doubt because it was Father’s Day.
Opening with Bach, Ramirez, making his D.C. concert debut, played the “Prelude and Fugue in D Major (BWV 532)” cleanly and efficiently. He registered the pieces much more conservatively than I’ve heard him register Bach previously, but that was fine.
A lengthy musical journey followed with “Triptico del Buen Pastor (Triptych of the Good Shepherd),” by Jesus Guridi that gave Ramirez lots of opportunity for tone painting as he played through the three selections, whose titles translate to “the flock,” “the lost sheep” and “the good shepherd.” Based on a biblical notion, Ramirez’s registration variations were the most interesting facet of the triptych moving from flute-heavy pastorale passages, principal-heavy transitionary passages with lots of dynamic contrast and character evocation, a stately chorale-like climax and a somewhat jarring finale.
Sometimes organ recitals are too wacky, as if the concert organist wants too badly to eschew anything (Bach notwithstanding) that suggests church repertoire. That’s all fine — there are no rules — but it was nice to hear a stately piece like this with long passages that sounded like something regal you might hear during a religious service. I didn’t love the piece, but it was nice to hear the organ in this mode.
A Bach chorale (“Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier”) served as a palate cleanser, then Ramirez closed the first half with a showy, bombastic rendition of “Allegro,” the first movement from Widor’s “Symphony VI (Op. 42, No. 2).” Ramirez, in perfectly fluent, albeit heavily (but endearingly!) accented English, provided charming and insightful commentary throughout the afternoon. His personality is almost as much a part of the show as the actual playing. You left feeling you’d gotten to know him a little and it was good company.
The second half followed suit in big-mellow-big fashion with a satisfying triple whammy of Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz, No. 1,” two short pieces by Italian composer Joan Bautista Cabanilles and Ramirez’s own transcription of Wagner’s “Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg.” Ramirez clearly had fun creatively registering all the selections. The second half, especially, made judicious and effective use of the organ’s two Trompette-en-Chamade ranks, blending these stately fanfare trumpet stops convincingly with the rest of the organ thunder. That’s harder to do than you’d think. He played entirely from memory.
Three encores followed and oddly provided some of the most musically satisfying moments of the entire recital. The first was a short but flashy pedal piece often erroneously attributed to Bach; the second and third were authentic Bach pieces, the latter of which gave us some of the best moments to hear the organ’s soft flute stops, undergirded with deep, spongy 16-foot flutes in the pedal organ. It was an odd way to end a recital — most people like to go out with more of a bang — but it worked.
Ramirez, who teaches at Indiana’s Ball State University when he’s not traveling, is an organist of profound ability and remarkable insight who has deep understanding of what works, why it works, how to register and pace a wildly eclectic program and how to whittle down vast resources into something cohesive, as playing an organ this large is almost like preparing a meal that makes sense with endless spices at your disposal.
It all coalesced into something a little daring, a little unexpected, at times warmly familiar, never arbitrary and, by the end, quite satisfying. With Ramirez, you never feel he’s opening every can of paint just because he can. Even the most virtuosic passages — and there were many — never felt show-offy. Musicality trumps technique in his ethos. The ear seems to take in his playing with ease because you sense early on that musically you can trust him. You’re in capable hands. He knows where he’s heading with all this and you feel much like you do watching a good Scorsese film. He’s that kind of auteur and it was that kind of afternoon.