PORTLAND — This year’s “Bach Birthday Bash,” sponsored by the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ at Merrill Auditorium, attracted friends and admirers even on a Tuesday afternoon.

The program could have been called “Bach’s Greatest Hits,” and there were a surprising number of them, with themes that almost everyone recognizes, whether or not they know the key signature or opus number. I still prefer Bach’s to any other organ music, past or present.

Portland municipal organist Ray Cornils was at the keyboard of the Kotzschmar, with guest artists Aaron Engebreth, baritone, and Mark Paxson, violin.

The Kotzschmar’s thunderous power is well known. It can shake the foundation of City Hall. It is also capable of much gentler moods. In the Violin Concerto in E Major (BWV 1042), it was an equal and sensitive partner, never upstaging the violin.

Later, its smooth tones “soothed the savage beast” in Bach’s setting of the hymn tune “Schm? dich, o liebe Seele” (BWV 582). That was another realization from an all-Bach concert — the composer’s power to calm, even in the most virtuoso passages. And Bach was as much a virtuoso on the organ as Liszt was on the piano. 

All three musicians collaborated on a fine performance of sections from “The Passion According to St. Matthew” (BWV 244). Paxson’s clear baritone had both carrying power and clarity amid the baroque ornamentation.

An appropriate conclusion to the “Passion” music was the powerful “Mattheus-Final” of Charles Marie-Widor from his “Bach’s Memento.” 

Where Bach was at his greatest was in the variation form. Not even Beethoven or Handel can compare with his combination of imagination, narrative and musical power. That was demonstrated once again in Cornils’ performance of the great Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor (BWV 582), which raises a simple (but unforgettable) theme on the pedals to supreme heights.

Speaking of familiar works, Cornils’ encore was the Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor, which composers and conductors from Liszt to Stokowski have transcribed. It still sounds best on the organ, and even if Bach didn’t write it, as many scholars now believe, he should have.

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: [email protected]