Saturday, December 8, 2007

Another Dobson

Two Recordings of the 2003 Dobson Organ at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, CA.
Samuel S. Soria, organ
Delos Records

Premier Organ Recording DE 3331
  • Alec Wyton: Fanfare
  • Louis Vierne: Naïades for Organ, Op. 55
  • Julius Reubke: The 94th Psalm - Sonata for Organ
  • Johann Sebastian Bach: Prelude and Fugue in C, BWV 547
  • Olivier Messiaen: L'Ascension pour Orgue, II. & III
  • Herbert Howells: Psalm Preludes, Set II No. I


Organ Voices DE 3343

  • Theodore Dubois: Toccata in G
  • Eric De Lamarter: You Raise the Flute to Your Lips (from Four Eclogues)
  • Peter Hurford: Paean
  • Maurice Duruflé: Suite, Op. 5
  • Paul Drayton: Pavane
  • Eugene Reuchsel: Trés lent et douloureux (from Evocation de Louis Vierne)
  • Olivier Messiaen: Joie et Clarté des Corps Glorieux
  • Hugh McAmis: Dreams
  • Edwin Lemare: Andantino (from Les Corps Glorieux)
  • César Franck: Chorale No. 2 in B


I was trying to figure out what sonic lineage the new Dobson organ in Philadelphia's Kimmel Center claims as its kin. Certainly not (to look at recently-reviewed recordings) North Germanic baroque, and not something derived from Cavaillé-Coll's workshop. The obvious answer is that Dobson is springing into the 21st Century by way of Skinner and G. Donald Harrison and M. P. Moller and the 20th Century American Classic organ. But I don't quite hear that in the Kimmel instrument. It's lovely and powerful, and it has a stylistic and sonic coherence, but it has its own stamp; it's not quite this and not quite that, and yet I can't so far put my finger on a new direction which is distinctly Dobson. I enjoy the exercise, and it may yet come to me. But so far it seems like a branch off the family tree which is too short to gauge its direction.

My questions, in my review of the recent recording of that new Kimmel Center organ, about whether Lynn Dobson was up to so immense a task as building what is billed as "America's largest concert hall organ" were evidently misplaced. It's a confident, assured instrument and a magnificent mechanical and sonic achievement with no asterisks. But with my inherent skepticism toward the do everything organ, I've continued to scratch my head a little about the roots of its sound. Obviously, such an instrument does not appear in a poof of smoke, so in search of a little perspective I set out to see what brought Lynn Dobson to this watershed. As I mentioned in that earlier review, my familiarity with Dobson's work was confined to a small mechanical action instrument installed in a church in Minneapolis shortly after it was installed roughly 25 years ago--a world away from the behemoth in Kimmel Center. So I wasn't surprised to learn that Mr. Dobson had traversed a number of steps leading to the Kimmel organ. One of these steps, a most pertinent one, is an ambitious instrument from 2003 in Los Angeles' Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

There are at least three solo CD releases on this instrument, and I've managed to get my hands on two of them. I had seen these releases in online catalogs over the past year or two, but hadn't been paying attention. Double shame on me, as both these releases are on the Delos label, which specializes in organ recordings and is responsible for several of the most spectacularly-recorded CDs in my collection (including the Todd Wilson complete Duruflé from 1986 that tops them all). These releases bring Delos's usual engineering excellence to the task, and the instrument and space are fantastically captured.

But the organ. A four manual instrument of 76 speaking stops and 105 ranks, it's a substantial organ by any standard (though still a bit smaller than the 97 stop / 124 rank Kimmel Center organ). This organ certainly establishes the firm's credentials for tackling the Philadelphia instrument, though it's worth noting that these are the only two four manual instruments Dobson has built. (He's done many three manual organs, but these two four manual instruments are substantially larger than anything else from his shop.) The church's previous building was damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and Mr. Dobson was commissioned to build an organ (using some of the old organ's pipes) for the new church built in replacement. It's a lovely building, the kind of huge, blank-slate space which architects must rarely get a crack at. Sonically, it's not quite Notre Dame, but it's a gigantic volume of enclosed space, and very sympathetic to grand organ music. So the pedigree is excellent all around.

Our performer on these releases is the Lady of the Angels cathedral organist Samuel Soria, who gives us a mixture in both programs of firmly established and relatively unfamiliar repertoire. Soria came to Los Angles after a nine year stint in Chicago at the luscious Flentrop at Holy Name Cathedral, and has studied with some very prestigious people, including Wolfgang Rubsam, Jean Guillou and Naji Hakim. He has an excellent musical sense (I would expect nothing less with this roster of teachers), with middling tempos and sympathetic registrations. The lush acoustic is well suited for this kind of music, and Soria has good instincts for this set-up. One small complaint is that he rushes his way through the climax to the third movement of Olivier Messiaen's l'Ascension, a stirring movement which nonetheless I feel requires a player to make a case for. But it's a small niggle. Here is yet another rendition of Duruflé's Op. 5 Suite pour orgue, and Mr. Soria tackles the huge technical challenges, especially of the final movement, expertly. He also gives a thrilling rendition of Franck's Second Choral--a piece for which the instrument seems tailor-made.

After my recent attention to the very period-specific and genre-specific work of GOArt, I'm aware that an instrument which seeks to do everything well must necessarily compromise on everything. Much of mainstream contemporary organ building covers a certain tonal landscape, and it's understood that a copy of a 16th or 17th Century organ will have very limited practical application for anybody but a university. This Los Angeles Dobson gives me a little perspective from which to judge his Kimmel Center organ (of which I'm longing for a solo recording). This Lady of the Angels instrument speaks into a more sympathetic space for organ music than Kimmel Hall, and the organ here speaks clearly and has a huge dynamic range--as we'd expect from an instrument of 105 ranks. Much more than the Kimmel Center organ (to my ear), I hear a connection between this Los Angeles Dobson and the work of Ernest M. Skinner or G. Donald Harrison. This organ sounds American. It's a really big sound, the sound of large air volumes and high wind pressures and clean, forthright projection. All pipe speech characteristics and artifacts have been scrubbed clean, seemingly making for sounds where key elements would not disappear behind some closed swell shutters (which is one of the reasons I've never cared for swell boxes).

Like the Fisk organ in Dallas's Meyerson Symphony Center, this is an organ designed to fill a huge space, and it is naturally a less intimate, less delicately-nuanced sound than what we might get from a small-room instrument. It's not an idiosyncratic sound. There is a full set of fiery en chamade horizontal reeds on this organ, which bring the requisite snap to climaxes, but that leads me to one of my few complaints about the organ: something in the wind supply regulation of these en chamade reeds, or an incongruity between the wind pressures or supply of these reeds versus the rest of the organ makes the reeds a bit distracting, especially in antiphonal effects. They sound great to top off the ensemble for a climax, but as solo voices there is something off-putting in their speech and / or voicing. In parts of the Ruebke Sonata on the 94th Psalm, I momentarily wondered if there were something wrong with my sound system. I see the third recording available on this instrument is with another performer, so maybe Mr. Soria just has a different sense of what works than I do; maybe I'd agree with a different performer's choices here more.

For so large an undertaking, though, these few carps are trivial. I'm quite wowed by Mr. Dobson's work here, and I'll look forward to other recordings on both instruments. I see that Mr. Dobson is currently working on another large, four manual instrument for a church in Dallas. I anticipate that instrument, but for now I'm quite engrossed with this pair of impressive new organs from him.


Chris Born said...

While I was an undergrad at Valparaiso, the Reddel Organ underwent a major upgrade/refurbishment in 1996. The original 1959 organ was very German Baroque, designed and built by Schlicker in cooperation with Paul Bunjes. Dobson added a new Frech character to the organ, including very nasal reeds and soft strings. The instrument now has 101 ranks , a four manual console (it was 3) and 77 stops.

wunelle said...

Thanks for stopping by and for your comments. I revere Duruflé above all others save Bach and maybe Ravel. Great to hear that we share interpretive preferences.

I'm not as familiar with Langlais, though I met his widow in Ste. Clotilde a decade ago. She was presenting one of her students to a jury recital on Franck's instrument there, and she most graciously allowed us to listen in. This was the first organ I heard in Paris, and the effect almost caused me to wet my pants!

As for Langlais himself, I have a limited number of his compositions, and I haven't especially bonded with any of them. I think he needs a bit of effort from me. Any recommendations on where to start?

Chris Born said...

Yes, Langlais takes work at times to enjoy. Much of his stuff is very hard to follow, BUT there are a few gems. It's hard to get this album anymore, but I have a rare CD I picked up at Tower Records Annex in NYC before they went under, probably in 2000. It's entitles, "Oeuvres de Jean Langlais et Franck Besingrand" and in particular, the 3 chorals are a lot of fun, "Nun Singt Ein Neues Lied" and "#3 For Organ and Trumpet" is fantastic (It's based on Nunn Komm Der Heiden Heiland) but the absolute best is the Piece #3 for Organ and Trumpet. It is so lyrical; you'd love it, it does remind you of Durufle's sensibilities a bit. On iTunes you can get Fete for Organ, done at Valparaiso; this piece is bright and rhythmic.

I still see Bach as #1 for Baroque, but Durufle is by far the genius of the modern era; but Langlais has some cool offerings. I've also gotten into Dupre quite a bit.

Chris Born said...

Whoops - not "Nun Komm Der Heiden Heiland" but "Vater Unser."