Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ presents as many organ concerts during its summer festival as it does during the regular concert season – more, actually, since in addition to the four Tuesday evening recitals offered throughout August, there is a day-long Kotzschmar Organ Day, on Aug. 13, during which listeners can hear members of the Maine Chapter of the American Guild of Organists perform between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

This year’s installment, Orgelfest16, got underway on Tuesday evening at Merrill Auditorium with a recital by Frederick Swann, one of the legends of the American organ world, partly because he has held positions at churches with revered instruments – including Riverside Church, in New York, where he was organist for nearly a quarter century, starting in 1957, and the Crystal Cathedral, in Garden Grove, California.

Swann has an estimable discography and has toured plentifully – Tuesday’s concert was, by his estimate, his 14th performance on the Kotzschmar Organ – but he said in a pre-concert interview with Portland Municipal Organist Ray Cornils that he is mostly content to play his regular performances as organ artist in residence at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, in Palm Desert, California, and to teach at the University of Redlands. Given the rigors of travel, he plans to give up touring in the fall, after scheduled recitals in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and Kilgore, Texas.

If he holds to that plan – he also announced his retirement in 2011, but his recent 85th birthday has apparently strengthened his resolve – his Portland performance will have been his third-to-last tour concert.

His dexterity and interpretive imagination are certainly intact. Although there were occasional finger slips, younger musicians are not immune to those either, and some of Swann’s selections – most notably Healey Willan’s richly varied Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue, a fairly comprehensive tour of organ technique, and César Franck’s “Choral, No. 2,” the intensely mystical meditation that was the centerpiece of the first half – were played with a commanding sense of pace and color.

He also gave a masterly account of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G (BWV 541), notable for both the vigor he brought to the Prelude and the textural transparency with which he illuminated the fugue.

He played an arrangement of Samuel Barber’s enduringly popular Adagio, a work that began life as a string quartet movement and is now most frequently heard in Barber’s expansion for string orchestra. It exists in arrangements of every kind – as a flute and piano piece, a choral Agnus Dei setting, and in this solo organ version, an anonymous arrangement that Swann touched up.

The Adagio’s winding, melancholy lines suit the organ, and Swann made a strong case for it – though probably not strong enough to displace many listeners’ preference for the lush orchestral version (or better still, the taut quartet original).

Several of the works Swann played were compact, character pieces that let him explore the Kotzschmar’s extensive resources. Seth Bingham’s “Bells of Riverside” and Alexander Russell’s “The Bells of St. Anne de Beaupré,” each use carillon timbres to quote the bell-ringing that inspired the composers, and Swann combined these deftly with other timbres.

Nicely rounded flute tones, along with the pinched buzz of oboes, dominate a short movement by the Baroque composer John Stanley, originally composed for harpsichord or organ, but presented here as “Toccata for Flute Stops.” Robert Hebble’s “Heraldings,” with its modal, neo-Medieval opening, gave the trumpet and tuba stops a good workout. And in both John La Montaine’s quiet “Even Song” and John Weaver’s Introduction and Fugue on the Welsh hymn tune, “St. Denio,” Swann played with an impeccable sense of shape and a sharp ear for blends of subtle hues.

One word of advice for anyone planning to attend the Orgelfest16 concerts: The program book does not include notes on the works, but extensive notes can be found on the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ website, foko.org.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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