Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Bit of Recent Organ Archeology

Discoveries: Christopher Marks plays the Crouse Holtkamp
The 1950 Walter Holtkamp organ at Crouse College, Syracuse University
Raven Records OAR-790
Music of Bach, Dupré, Sowerby, Franz Tunder, David N. Johnson (1922-1987), Joseph Ahrens (1904-1999) and Nicolas Scherzinger (b. 1968)


With my recent review of Murray Forbes Somerville playing Bach on the Flentrop organ at Harvard University, I touched a bit upon the upheaval in the organ world that began in the early-mid 20th Century, as organists and listeners became aware of the merits of the organ of Bach's day. That Flentrop organ was one of the earliest instruments of modern times--certainly one of the most famous--to wholly embrace this organ reform movement. The principles of the movement included, among others:
  • Mechanical key and stop action (the only electricity involved was to run the blower, and some of these neo-baroque organs even allowed for a manual winding option); this restricted how the organ could be laid out and how large it could practically be.
  • The choirs of the organ were discretely organized into physical sections, and the sound of each was focused by its own case.
  • Relatively low wind pressures were employed.
  • Pipes were voiced differently, using an open toe and controlling pipe speech at the mouth of the pipe.
  • Eventually, historic temperaments were regularly incorporated.
All of these things were a departure from how the organs of the time were constructed. A modern Aeolian-Skinner organ used considerably higher wind pressures, and the organ was thoroughly electrified. A modern organ console was basically a mass of electric switches, connected to the organ with an umbilical of electric cords, and could be placed anywhere; the organ pipes could be installed in any configuration--wherever the pipes could be made to fit--with the divisions of the organ mixed up together. In this scenario, casework becomes almost entirely cosmetic. (The one exception here would involve sections of the organ which were under expression--that is, inside a swell chamber where the volume escaping from the chamber could be controlled by a foot-pedal-activated wall of venetian shutters; these sections needed to be geographically contiguous.)

With early 20th Century organs designed to be a one-person orchestra (for playing orchestral transcriptions, say, or accompanying a silent film), many of the sounds were imitative of orchestral timbres, and the stoplists for these organs were very different from what Bach had been familiar with. It was against all this that the organ reform movement sought to rebel. The baroque organ had been a stand-alone instrument, one with its own repertoire and not predominantly imitative of anything except other organs. The rediscovery of these European organs reminded listeners that there was another way, and many found that other way to be more coherent and compelling.

This present CD introduces us to an intermediate stage along this retro-modernization movement. The organ, dating from 1950, comes from the Cleveland shops of Walter Holtkamp, and was a significant instrument in several respects. The Holtkamp Company was one of America's foremost organ builders in 1950, and Walter Holtkamp Sr. was one of the reform movement's leading proponents in this country.

This present instrument is significant both for its reform stoplist (combined with some of the previous organ's romantic pipework) and for Holtkamp's soon-to-be trademark use of totally open pipework. A portion of the organ is under expression, which of course requires some kind of containment casework; but most of the organ sits out in the open, the pipes themselves like a beautiful, sparkling sculpture, without any kind of casework above. The organ is installed in an alcove in the building, which might be expected to act like an oversized case, but subsequent Holtkamp organs were often installed completely in the open. Walter Holtkamp believed this made the sound of the organ more intimate and immediate, and it made for really striking and individual looking instruments. While the Crouse instrument has electric action, Holtkamp's son, Walter Holtkamp Jr., introduced mechanical action to the firm, and subsequent instruments have been a mixture of mechanical and electric action as the customers and circumstances demand.

While the instrument is not particularly baroque up next to the 1958 Flentrop (to say nothing of a present-day Fritts or Brombaugh organ), when viewed next to an Aeolian-Skinner of 1950 it's a pretty radical departure. And sonically it's clearly a step back toward this new way of thinking. And it makes for a compelling and very successful organ, one which does Bach with great unity and vibrancy, but also deftly handles more modern fare (which is always the challenge, isn't it? An instrument tailored for Buxtehude will struggle with Franck or Duruflé; compromises must be found).

Christopher Marks is Assistant Professor of organ at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. From 1999-2006 he taught organ and music theory at Syracuse University, where he became intimately familiar with this Holtkamp organ. As such, he has an affection for the instrument and an excellent sense of how to show it in the best possible light. In addition to Bach and Franz Tunder, Marks plays three pieces from Dupré's Suite Bretonne and the Passacaglia of Leo Sowerby, plus some excellent pieces from Joseph Ahrens and from past and present Syracuse faculty Nicolas Scherzinger and David N. Johnson. It's a wonderful recital of known and unknown, on a versatile and significant instrument.

Sonically, the disc is fine, though the acoustic--so typical in American recital halls--is a bit dry.

1 comment:

Flow Blue Bud's Blogspot said...

Austin has a great classical station, and Sundays at 4 pm central time they air a program called pipeworks, which is right up your,er, pipe? That didn't come out quite right.

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