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Music review: Laszlo Fassang plays Bach and Liszt at Disney

November 21, 2011 |  1:55 pm

Laszlo Fassang
When Hungary assumed its six-month presidency of the European Union, the country went on a rebranding campaign, intent on making Budapest cool. I don’t think that worked any better than the E.U. seems to be working. It would be hard to believe that Budapest isn’t still the spooky city it has always been.

Maybe that explains something about the rebranding of László Fassang. When he made his debut as a hot young Hungarian organist at Walt Disney Concert Hall not quite five years ago, he was a bright-and-bushy-tailed Hungarian ghostbuster sparking Bach and Liszt with a feisty Bartókian energy.

He was back at Disney for more Bach and Liszt on Sunday night looking quite cool –- a tight black suit and open-collar white shirt for the first half, black shirt and no jacket for the second. And this time instead of displaying an illuminating clarity in his playing, he went for something more intoxicatingly Pink Floyd-ish. Loud waves of fat sonorities were his joy.

But the spooks came out to play anyway. It was a dark and stormy outside Sunday. And it was a dark and stormy night inside as well.

The recital began with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in F, BWV 540, and it came across something like a flood. Fassang’s approach was remarkably fluid and very fast. The toccata surged excitingly. The fugue surged excitingly. The organ was not used for its color. Counterpoint was made neither clear nor cool.

Fassang may have looked “Twilight,” but what he offered with his romanticizing Bach was more suitable for films of yore -– creating, for instance, the fraught gothic tension of the coach ride during a tempest to Dracula’s castle. 

And it was in this spooky gothic realm that Fassang remained, with four Schumann fugues on B-A-C-H and Max Reger’s freak-out Fantasy and Fugue on B-A-C-H, before turning to the Liszt’s massive Fantasy and Fugue on “Ad Nos, Ad Salutarem Undam” after intermission.

In all, Fassang seemed surprisingly muted and traditional in his choice of stops, side-stepping the many novelties that Disney’s organ provides. He favored big-time bass and fuzzy, buzzy walls of sound. Momentum mattered more than the illumination of structure as Fassang sprinted toward climaxes and then let them swell majestically.

But he always kept his cool at the keyboard, even in Liszt. “Ad Nos” is a galvanic piece, nearly half an hour long, which begins with a wildly inventive, thunderous fantasy on an Anabaptist chorale in Meyerbeer’s opera “Le Prophéte.”

Here Fassang was immediately back in freak-out mode and only in the middle section was there the first hint of color and quiet all evening. But that was also the spookiest music of all, with distant, disjointed melodic lines seeming to evoke voices from the beyond. The fugue was a blur as it careened toward the big fanfares at the end, which were massively triumphant –- the spike through Dracula’s heart.

As he had at his previous visit to Disney, Fassang asked the audience to select themes on which he would improvise. The choices were to be from either Bach or Liszt, and he wound up with two hoary numbers: Bach’s D-Minor Toccata and Liszt’s “Les Preludes.”

Vamping with a thumping bass drum, Fassang quickly pulled a musical potboiler out of a pot in which there was room for additional Bach and a hint of Pachelbel. The style was old-fashioned, something that might have enhanced a melodramatic silent movie. Even here, with a modern organist playing a modern organ in a modern concert hall, the spooks had their way.

But for an encore, Fassang gave what he called an improvisation on the Disney organ itself, that proved an exorcism. All the novelty stops, all the kaleidoscopic colors of this instrument that had been ignored in the formal program were finally let loose in something quirkily original. The sonic dust cleared. And that actually was cool.


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-- Mark Swed

Photo: László Fassang performing at Walt Disney Concert Hall Sunday night. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.