Saturday, September 1, 2007

Cesar Franck at Oberlin, Haskell Thomson

Franck: Haskell Thomson
Pro Organo CD 7152
The Kay Africa Memorial Organ (C.B. Fisk Opus 116)
Finney Chapel, Oberlin College
  • Troisieme Choral en la mineur
  • Prelude, Fugue et Variation, Op. 18
  • Grande Piece Symphonique, Op. 17
  • Trois Pieces (1878)
  • --Fantaisie
  • --Cantabile
  • --Piece Heroique

A while back I wrote a post about a recording of J. Melvin Butler playing a new organ at Oberlin College, an instrument built by one of America's most iconic pipe organ builders, the firm of C. B. Fisk of Gloucester, MA. (The late Charles Fisk is an interesting character. After studying nuclear physics at Harvard, he opened his organ shop in 1961 and produced an impressive list of very innovative and progressive instruments until his death in 1983; the firm has continued to follow his principles.)

Apart from being a large instrument designed and built for an academic concert hall, this Oberlin instrument--their Opus 116--has the further distinction of having been built, as an experiment, according to the tonal principles of France's greatest organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899). Cavaillé-Coll is responsible for nearly all of the famous instruments in Paris's great churches (Notre Dame, St. Sulpice, St. Clotilde, la Madeleine, St. Trinité), and many others, and he played an integral part in the flowering of this great compositional school from Cesar Franck onward to the present day. While the Fisk organ at Oberlin is not a copy of any particular Cavaillé-Coll instrument per se, it utilizes his ideas of what sounds ought to be represented in an instrument of this size--its stoplist--and it makes use of Cavaillé-Coll's technical specifications--wind pressures and pipe scalings. The idea, as I understand it, was to build a new instrument for a large American space that is a reasonable stab at what Cavaillé-Coll might have built. It's a fascinating idea, an experiment played out in a very elaborate and expensive arena.

That particular CD had a further twist. In addition to the works of Charles Tournemire played on this new instrument, a second disc was included where the recording engineers ran the digital data from the original recording thru a computer process which gave the organ an artificial acoustic. In effect, the computer was used to put the Oberlin organ into the acoustics of Chartres Cathedral (the acoustic at Finney Chapel is quite dry, and not at all like any acoustic where the existing Cavaillé-Coll instruments are found). The very idea of this, and the details of how they accomplished it, were incredibly captivating to me--and still are (and are covered a bit more in that earlier post).

All this by the way of preface. I recently got a disc of Haskell Thomson playing Cesar Franck on this Oberlin Fisk organ (though without any acoustic processing). Thomson is Professor of Organ at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and a specialist in this repertoire. And it gives me another organist recording another composer on this instrument, captured by another recording engineer and released on another label--these all help to gain a fuller picture of exactly what the instrument is like. (And I ordered yet another disc of this instrument--with yet another performer--but it's on backorder. I will review that disc when I get it.)

Professor Thomson is very effective in this repertoire. There is an inherent gravity in this music, and I feel it is much easier to play too quickly than too slowly. Thomson hits down the center of the fairway, leaning just slightly toward slow and stately. This seems quite correct to me, and he is convincing. For the huge esteem in which the composer is held, Cesar Franck's whole output for the organ fits on two CDs; and so Professor Thomson gives us about half of the oeuvre, a good cross-section of Franck's work.

I have many recordings of this repertoire, and my primary interest in the recording is the instrument itself. This new recording brings some confirmation to my suspicions from the first recording. Well, it does and it doesn't. I have quite a number of recordings of the organs of Cavaillé-Coll, and my familiarity with them and my love of their sound was my primary motivation for going to Paris a decade ago: to see and hear these instruments first-hand. And I have to say that, to my ears, neither recording of this Fisk "copy" of Cavaillé-Coll's work sounds particularly like the C-Cs I have heard. Not even with the signal processing, however fabulous and effective that part of the exercise was.

Don't misunderstand me: this is a magnificent musical instrument in its own right. It sounds fantastic in this French repertoire, though the room is maybe a bit unfortunate. But I just don't think in some kind of blind test I would have any confusion about which was the Fisk and which was the Cavaillé-Coll. Professor Thomson registers the organ in a way that makes the C-C illusion more convincing than it was the first time around, which then begs the question of what HIS recording would sound like if acoustically processed. But still, I think I would not be fooled. That raises many questions about what details big and small are really responsible for Cavaillé-Coll's signature sound: the stoplist? The building itself? The materials used in the pipes? Or is it a matter of the very subtle voicing of the individual stops?

(C.B. Fisk's Opus 116 at Oberlin College)

One of my first and lasting impressions with the work of Cavaillé-Coll was his unexpected method of bringing power to the sound of his instruments. He voiced his big reed stops to be quite obnoxious in their tone. Played by themselves, they sound just this side of noise. But as a foundation for a large body of stops being played simultaneously, the brashness imparts a huge majesty and harmonic richness that is quite unexpected. Likewise the high frequency upperwork. Organs sound so rich because they don't have to rely, as most instruments do, on the natural occurrence of harmonics; pipes can simply be built to SPEAK the notes you might otherwise hope would show up as harmonics. And again, Cavaillé-Coll was not shy about this. Some of his mutations and mixtures are loud to the point of being shrill.

The idea of achieving something of transporting beauty by way of harsh or ugly elements is ingenious (like the painter Chaim Soutine, whose crude globs of paint nonetheless form, if one steps back a bit, a moving image). Without the ensemble beneath them, these ranks are quite painful to listen to; but mixed in with a mass of more conventional organ sound, they take your breath away with a richness which is like a whole sonic universe opening before you.

Neither of these rather counter-intuitive elements--harsh reeds and shrill upperwork--seem to be present in the Oberlin Fisk. It's almost as though someone decided they could smooth off the rough edges, and left the essential character in shavings on the floor in the process. But the acoustic may be playing a role in this. Because the absence of reverberation is so striking in this recording compared to any CD featuring a Cavaillé-Coll instrument, it's an open question to me what role the huge cathedral acoustics play in the overall sound of these organs. While the Fisk company has made use of Cavaillé-Coll's pipe scales and other technical information (wind pressures, windchest designs, key action), it seems that some other element must be involved, some final step which Cavaillé-Coll took which put his indelible stamp on his work.

In timbre and performance, this Haskell Thomson survey of Franck's music makes a great addition to an enthusiast's music collection, and it's a good choice for introducing the repertoire to the unfamiliar.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The organ's main difference between the Oberlin organ (which I have played) and the C-Cs is that the Fisk has one windchest per division (with the exception of the Grande Orgue, which has two) while C-Cs usually had multiple windchests per division. As a result, the Fisk reeds don't quite 'scream' as well as C-C's reeds.