BRENDA PORTMAN (born 1980), MARIANNE KIM (born 1972), TOM TRENNEY (born 1977), and DAN LOCKLAIR (born 1949): Psalm-Sonata & Suites — Dr. David von Behren, organ [Recorded in First-Plymouth Church, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA, in July 2023; 1 CD, 39:43; David von Behren Music; Available from Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify, and YouTube Music]
By the start of his half-century tenure as organist at Virginia’s Bruton Parish in 1755, Peter Pelham was one of Colonial America’s most esteemed citizens, having already attained notoriety as both a pedagogue in Charleston, South Carolina, and principal organist at Boston’s Trinity Church. A pupil of Karl Theodor Pachelbel, son of the composer Johann Pachelbel, Pelham was renowned throughout the Colonies as an organ virtuoso, harpsichordist, composer, and conductor, his admirers including as discerning an aficionado as Thomas Jefferson, whose library at Monticello is known to have contained collections of music curated and published by Pelham. Though born in England, Pelham’s work embodied the essence of the fledgling American republic, his efforts in Williamsburg after the Revolution molding European influences and New-World innovations into an original musical ethos that paralleled the nation’s development of a distinct identity. Regrettably, Pelham’s own music for organ is lost, but his significance to America’s musical heritage is honored in every public and private moment in which the organ resounds.
In the 218 years since Pelham’s death in 1805, organists have continued to dedicate their lives and careers to serving their communities as teachers, worship leaders, concert artists, composers, and stewards of America’s musical evolution. Recently completing his Doctor of Music in Organ Performance degree at Boston University, Dr. David von Behren is as learned and tireless an advocate for the organ, the instrument’s ever-expanding contemporary repertoire, and music education today as Pelham was in his time. Recorded in First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, employing the church’s spectacular, custom-built Schoenstein Lied Chancel organ, von Behren’s new album Psalm-Sonata & Suites presents works by living composers, just as Pelham did when assembling music for his published compendia. Furthering the espousal of modern music manifested in his American Adventures and Merry Melodies for Advent and Christmas programmes, the pieces selected for Psalm-Sonata & Suites are remarkably diverse, reflecting the encouragingly bountiful trends in writing for the organ. The unifying element of the album—and the quality that elucidates the unique beauties of each work—is the heartfelt expressivity of von Behren’s playing, here communicated to the listener with unfeigned generosity of spirit.
The first of the album’s cornerstone works, Wisconsin-born Brenda Portman’s 2021 Psalm-Sonata No. 1, traverses a three-movement narrative derived from Psalms 13, 91, and 98, the music’s depictions of the emotional transitions among the texts yielding a basic structure that is at once symphonic, recalling Stravinsky’s 1930 Symphony of Psalms, and devoutly intimate in the manner of a Bach cantata. In von Behren’s performance, appreciation of the subtleties of which is owed in part to the fine work of sound engineer Michael Raleigh, the Sonata’s fluctuating moods assume hypnotic, perceptibly personal dimensions. The Psalmist’s lament of divine abandonment throbs in the Sonata’s first movement, the desperation of the words ‘How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?’ starkly communicated by the music’s jagged climaxes and retreats, realized in this account with absolute control.
The confidence of von Behren’s playing is tested not by the technical difficulty but by the psychological profundity of the Sonata’s second part, ‘He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.’ The accuracy and brilliance of his playing are consistent throughout the Sonata and its companions on this album, but the lyricism of his handling of the serene repose of Portman’s tone painting in this movement is especially exquisite. The exultation in the composer’s frenzied figurations in the Sonata’s final movement, ‘Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth burst into jubilant song,’ cascades from the instrument in fanfare-like surges, executed by von Behren with boundless energy and affecting sincerity of faith.
Born in Korea and based in Chicago, Marianne Kim assimilates musical influences from all corners of the globe into tonal language that echoes the diversity of her own experiences and the intersections of sundry cultures. In the three sections of her Meditation Suite, whispers of the styles of George Gershwin, Ernst Krenek, and Michael Nyman are interwoven with vestiges of the forms employed by Buxtehude, Lübeck, and Bach. The Suite’s first movement, marked ‘Gently,’ creates an aptly contemplative atmosphere, the organ’s voices employed as in a discordant anthem, but von Behren’s attention to accentuating the piece’s innate equilibrium discloses a latent playfulness thar frolics within the music’s textures.
Every note sounded on this recording is executed ‘with feeling,’ but this direction in the second movement of Kim’s Suite is observed with remarkable fidelity, the primary-color feelings of musical theater juxtaposed with sounds of haunting ambivalence. As von Behren animates its aural dioramas, the third movement’s description of ‘Moderately’ is as much an explication of its character as an indication of tempo. Kim exercises moderation in thematic development, eschewing the kind of exploitation of the organ’s myriad of effects used by some composers to disguise banality. There is also moderation in von Behren’s approach to the music: rather than relying upon the instrument’s ability to awe, he emphasizes the profundity with which Kim’s music engages the organist and the hearer in an unspoken dialogue.
Resembling a sequence of antiphons punctuating the inaugural entreaty of the Anaphora, the Eucharistic Prayer, the six variations of Tom Trenney’s Suite breve on SURSUM CORDA demonstrate command of musical metamorphosis akin to the transformational acuity found in sets of variations by Beethoven and Brahms. Its melodic line constructed with the elegance of Hildegard von Bingen’s monophony, the Petit Plein-jeu with which the Suite begins is played with vigor that provides an alluring contrast with the subsequent Andantino cantabile, phrased by von Behren with poetic grace. In the context of the music’s liturgical associations, the Scherzetto and Quickstep are perhaps unexpected, but Trenney’s mercurial writing and von Behren’s wittily-inflected playing remind that, as recorded in 2 Samuel 6:14, ‘David danced before the Lord with all his might.’ The exciting Toccata brevis is a whirlwind of compositional ideas that von Behren tames with technical panache. This performance reveals the Suite’s concluding Benediction to indeed be a blessing for organists and listeners, Trenney’s musical journey reaching a final destination made a welcoming refuge for the soul by von Behren’s earnest expressivity.
One of America’s most respected composers of contemporary sacred music, Dan Locklair creates scores that are equally adventurous and accessible—traits also embodied by von Behren’s musicianship. Dating from 2007, the four chorale preludes of Locklair’s St. John’s Suite reimagine in sound verses from the Gospel of John, fashioning a concise but compelling survey of the life of Christ. Treating John 12:13 (‘Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel’), the joyful first prelude is played with rousing immediacy, the contours and meaning of the text imparted by von Behren’s articulation of tonal clusters. The anxiety and foreboding that infiltrate the prelude based upon John 21:15 (‘...lovest thou me more than these?’) are heightened by the tension with which the piece is played, the harmonic symbolization of the promise of salvation sometimes fading but always present. The solemnity of John 10:11 (‘...the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep’) is evinced not with grandiose gravitas but with quiet simplicity. As it is played by von Behren, the final prelude, proclaiming ‘...blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed’ (John 20:29), is a cathartic resolution, the comfort of faith rewarded dissipating doubt and despair. The mutual faith among composers and organist is prodigiously rewarded in David von Behren’s performances on this album. So, too, is America’s unabating faith in the organ as the foundation of the nation’s musical life.