Organ x 2: Pateras, Arkbro

Saturday 24 September 2022

Krakow’s Sacrum Profanum festival ended this year with two performances on the organ at the Philharmonic Hall; new compositions by Anthony Pateras and Ellen Arkbro, each with the composer at the manuals. Pateras’ Organ Work for Jim Knox was the world premiere, while Arkbro’s Untitled for organ has been played previously this year. Two large-scale works for organ almost inevitably means the evening is going to get kind of lugubrious, no matter how bright the music may be: the instrument is culturally saturated, overfilled with potential and connotations to the point of implosion. As it happened, both works focused on timbre and intonation, subjecting each to close inspection. That’s not to say the music was entirely static – at least the Pateras piece moved, constantly and inexorably, but with deceptive slowness. In keeping with his other recent work, the restless activity heard in his music has been sublimated from melody and gesture into texture and tone. A miniature in filigree, blown up under a microscope, the shape of the piece emerged for the listener in the meshing of overlapped pitches heard through multiple stops, each one introducing a change in colour. The Philharmonic organ doesn’t allow for half-open stops or other subterfuge, so shifts in intonation were made through the discrepancies in each stop’s tuning, a change in register altering each chord in both timbre and temperament.

Arkbro’s piece was more dronelike, making use of sudden switches back and forth between contrasting voices, inside a larger scheme of more gradual changes. Despite this, the colouring was restrained and development was made without resorting to overt drama, although the piece did build to a more forceful section before falling away again at the end. Arkbro’s usual interest in intonation was present, but in a more austere fashion, the small differences in pitch being expressed in a linear progression while harmony was thinned out. The piece suffered in this setting for being the second of two works programmed with a superficially similar nature, with nothing to clear and refresh the mind in between. That said, the muted ending didn’t seem to come off as intended here, with the unexpected change in force sounding like the music’s energy had dissipated rather than transformed.