Walter Hilse plays Bach’s The Art of Fugue at St Peter’s Lutheran Church, NYC

Review of Dr Walter Hilse’s performance of Bach’s The Art of Fugue, played on 9/24/2000 at St Peter’s Lutheran Church, NYC

Today at 4 o’clock, at St Peter’s Lutheran Church in NYC, Walter Hilse gave a splendid performance of the Art of Fugue. The Klais organ sang, whispered, and trumpeted under Dr Hilse’s imaginative registration. Each fugue and canon possessed its own distinctive character, and like pieces of a puzzle they fit together perfectly. Dr Hilse interspersed the fugues with the canons, to “welcome contrast”, as he wrote in the program notes. The program was as follows:

Fugue Ihilse
Fugue II
Fugue III
Fugue IV
Canon II at the Octave
Canon IV at the Twelfth
Fugue VI
Canon I in Augmentation and Contrary Motion
Fugue VII
Fugue VIII
Fugue IX
Fugue X
Canon III at the Tenth
Fugue XI
Mirror Fugue in 4 Voices (Normal, then inverted)
Mirror Fugue in 3 Voices (Normal then inverted)
Fugue XII (Unfinished)
Chorale Prelude Vor deinen Thron


The intensity of the performance grew as time went on. The canons were a pleasant variation to the complexity of the fugues. They also provided the opportunity to exploit the organ’s color to the fullest. The canon in Augmentation and Contrary Motion was, I think, a bit too fast and aggressive. I hear it as having a more composed, meditative character. In the context of the rest of the performance, though, Dr Hilse’s interpretation of the canon was a logical interlude between fugues VI and VII and made perfect sense that way.

The fugues nrs. X and XI were particularly spellbinding. Dr Hilse unleashed the sheer power of those pieces and brought it thundering down into the sanctuary. It was simply thrilling, this windstorm of sound and logic, bound by deeply felt emotion.

As the last, unfinished, fugue started, I was filled with apprehension, waiting for the moment when the B-A-C-H would sound. I’d like to think that I wasn’t the only one in the audience who wondered—just what sound will Dr Hilse choose to represent Bach’s name? It was a flute-like 8′. How fitting. After the last notes of the fugue hung in the air, clean and pure, it was also the sound that started the sublimely beautiful chorale, Vor deinen Thron.

st_peter_extThe minimalist modern architecture of St Peter’s was a perfect background for the highly spiritual music of Bach. Having never visited St Peter before, I was struck with it’s architect’s flight of imagination. I certainly have never seen a church where the sanctuary was below ground level, with ceiling windows facing the street. Several people were glued to the glass during the performance, and that created a feeling that the organ was speaking not only to us, sitting below, but also to the people outside, and to the sky, and to the entire city.

While much bitter discussion is being centered on organists playing recitals for organists, Walter Hilse has performed Bach for the people. I believe musicians and non-musicians alike went home with a memory of something special today.

Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church is located at
619 Lexington Avenue at 54 St
New York, NY 10022
(212) 935-2200 

©2000 Lana Krakovskiy