The New Year has come and in 2021 Mariinsky Theatre continues to impress with its programming. The feeling of being sage when attending concerts begins to set in. The VIII edition of International Organ Festival ‘Mariinsky’ (with Thierry Escaich, the renowned French organist, as its artistic director being) took place over five evenings in January 2021. As the organ at Mariinsky Theatre comes from France the Festival was programmed as a metaphoric competition between Russian and French organists. Just by coincidence, it turned out to be also a ‘duel’ between women and men, as three French male organists represented the rich tradition of their country. And indeed, we learned a lot about this tradition, including the practice of improvisation of which both three men (Thierry Escaich, David Cassan and Thomas Ospital) proved to be virtuosos.

Thierry Escaich, photo by Natasha Razina © Мариинский театр

The organ is usually an important architectural, as well as musical part of the concert hall. The organ at Mariinsky Theatre was brought from Strasbourg in 2009 and was built by the French firm Alfred Kern et fils, with Daniel Kern personally visiting St Petersburg to check its mechanics in 2010. It was the acoustician of Mariinsky Concert Hall, the famous specialist Yasuhisa Toyota (who has helped with acoustics in dozens of concerts halls around the world) who recommended this specialist and this type of organ for Mariinsky Concert Hall. Since 1 October 2009 when the first organ concert took place, many international and Russian performers have been testing its sound and adapting to the instrument.

Did you know that organists always need to study each instrument they play and adjust their way of presenting the music to it? Thomas Ospital, who opened the Festival, took 10 hours of rehearsals to work out registrations (that control the timbre of sound) and stops of the Kern organ. Mariinsky organ also has a movable console, and two performers – Ospital and Escaich – chose to play in the middle of a stage surrounded by the audience, while the organ sounds were produced somewhere above. Actually, an organ performance makes you discover the space in a different way – I tried various dispositions around the concert hall, including close to the instrument itself, sideways and straight in front of it at the back of the stalls. You almost think of the organ as a live instrument, you are amazed at all the richness of its behaviours and moods, you expect it to do extraordinary things – and they indeed happen. As Thomas Ospital confesses, he is always transported into another world when he is playing, while the organ itself can tell him how to play it. Isn’t it magic indeed?

There was an offering of Bach in each recital. This master of counterpoint will always remain the giant of organ music, and Olga Kotlyarova really impressed the public by dedicating the whole first half of her programme to Bach. Russian organist Marina Vyaizya also offered a Russian side to her programme, by playing transcriptions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Three wonders (an extract from The Tale of Tsar Saltan opera) and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances (an extract from Prince Igor opera). Interestingly, transcriptions of orchestral works and the option to be performed by a single person is also a unique feature of the instrument. For instance, David Cassan played the final three pieces from Stravinsky’s The Firebird, while Thomas Ospital did his own splendid rendering of Ravel’s Ma Mere L’Oye suite. The tempi are slightly slower than in the orchestral performance, but there is some exoticism in hearing the richness of the whole orchestra through only one instrument.

David Cassan, photo by Natasha Razina © Mariinsky Theatre

The discovery of this Festival edition was a rich French organ tradition that was brought to Saint Petersburg. There were names of famous organ composers of the 19th century like Alexandre Gilmant, Charles-Marie Widor, Alexandre Pierre François Boëly, Léon Boëllmann, Cesar Franck. Then there were names we know from orchestral music: Ravel and Poulenc, with Escaich playing the latter’s Concerto for organ, strings and timpani in collaboration with Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra led by Vladislav Karklin. Actually, each of the three musicians who came to perform in Saint Petersburg are also titular organists in their respective churches: Église Saint-Eustache (Paris) for Ospital, Église Saint-Étienne-du-Mont for Escaich and L’Oratoire du Louvre for Cassan. They come from a long tradition of French organ music (other famous names include Oliver Latry at Notre-Dame de Paris, Philippe Lefebvre, Jean-François Zygel, Pierre Pincemaille, etc.) and they are live inheritors of it. For instance, Ospital finished his recital with a mesmerizing Toccata from Maurice Duruflé’ Suite (1933) who preceded Escaich in his post at Église Saint-Étienne-du-Mont.

Thierry Escaich, photo by Natasha Razina © Mariinsky Theatre

In a most impressive feat of the whole festival was improvisation by these three organists – and what unforgettable moments those were! David Cassan playfully used Russian folk song Valenki (Felt Boots) as his improvisation motif, and can you imagine what it was like hearing the famous tune on an organ? Escaich ran into a wild, dazzling gallop being inspired by Bartók’s Hungarian Dances that he performed in his own transcription just minutes before. Thomas Ospital showed all the turns and twists of his own temperament, gaining a huge applause from the audience who had observed him heating the hall scolding hot. Indeed, the French art of organ improvisation is a unique skill, especially taking in consideration that every note an organist plays is heard in delay that increases if he or she is seated at the console and thus is meters apart from the instrument. Years of adaptation to this specifics of the instrument are needed, which is even more difficult during the spur of the moment music making. The VIII International Organ Festival Mariinsky left us with a feeling of longing to hear more and fantasizing about organ sounds and vibrations.