Friday, February 8, 2008

A Body of Work

J. S. Bach: the Complete Organ Works

George Ritchie on American organs by Brombaugh, Fisk, Fritts, Taylor & Boody, Noack, Pasi, Yokota
(recorded June 1992-September 2003)
Raven Records, OAR-875


I probably don't need another complete Bach organ cycle for my collection. More than a quarter of my collection is Bach, and a majority of that is organ music, including at least four complete surveys plus several hundred other Bach organ discs. But apart from a piece here and there on the occasional recital disc, I've not bought any Bach organ stuff since the last of Wolfgang Rübsam's cycle on Naxos a decade ago. So it seemed not a bad idea to see what's going on present-day. Because I've listened so intently to Bach's compositions for so many years, and used them as a springboard onto other things, it's easy to forget how much of the musical bedrock in my mind springs from these works. And if I concentrate just a little, Bach's inventiveness and musical genius retain the capacity to overwhelm. He is just so fecund, so unfailingly and impossibly tasteful--the very loftiest stratum of genius. (It seems silly to even attempt to make a case for Bach, but such is his miraculous talent that I can't keep from evangelizing a bit.)

George Ritchie is Professor of Organ Emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and his releases for this series over the last decade or so have put him on the map as a specialist in this repertoire. A highly capable technician, he gives an inspired tour of Bach's varied output, from the tenderness of the chorale preludes to the intellectual challenges of the trio sonatas to the confident brio of the great Preludes and Fugues. Interpretively, Dr. Ritchie swings close to the center of the fairway, choosing middling tempi and wholly defensible phrasing and registrations. Any of these performances could be held up as an example of how the piece in question ought to be played, and if you didn't know this music, this would be a really excellent introduction. Come to think of it, Ritchie's playing reminds me a bit of E. Power Biggs's old recordings, but with a touch more period performance nuance. I guess that's a pretty lofty imprimatur.

The box set calls itself Bach's complete works for organ, but the collection is missing quite a few things. Only two of the Chorale Partitas are present, and the chorales from the Neumeister Collection are not here, just off the top of my head (my other complete releases have 17 discs; this one, only 11). I'm not sure if there's a scholarly reason for this, or whether further volumes were intended, but the six individual releases are boxed together for this issue and labeled "complete." Still, there's plenty to celebrate for the 200 or so tracks present.

I'm quite enthusiastic about Dr. Ritchie's choice of instruments for the cycle. There is little need nowadays to make a case for the merits of historically-informed organs, but this would be the set to do it. While Bach's gifts shine through almost any transcription to synthesizer or steel drum band or scat singing, the simple, direct organ sounds like those of the instruments he knew show him in the best possible light, especially compared to Bach on an American Classic organ. And in this set the artist has managed to hit all the high points of historically-inspired organ design (including a couple organs also used by Rübsam in his Naxos set), the builders collectively forming quite a who's who of mechanical-action builders in this country: C. B. Fisk, Paul Fritts, John Brombaugh, Taylor & Boody, Fritz Noack. And there are a couple I'd not heard of as well: Martin Pasi and Associates, and the Japanese-American builder Munetaka Yokota. It turns out that Mr. Yokota, whose organ in this present CD release is at the California State University in Chino, was responsible for building and voicing the pipes for the North German organ at GOArt, the Goteborg Organ Art Center in Sweden--an organ about which I have erupted with effusive praise. So, small world.

They're excellent organs all. I especially like Fritz Noack's 1995 instrument in Christ the King Evangelical Lutheran Church in Houston. The instrument seems to achieve a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts unity (though the extreme flexibility of the winding is occasionally disrupting; I've heard the arguments in favor of it, but it still sounds like a defect to me). Martin Pasi & Assoc.'s 2003 organ in the Cathedral of St. Cecilia in Omaha is also excellent, and new to me. It's a larger acoustic than one typically finds in this country. And the Op. 18 organ of Paul Fritts at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma (1998) has gotten a lot of attention. This is my first recording of that instrument as well.

Lastly, because of a small personal connection, I'm particularly interested in the organs of Fisk and of John Brombaugh. Mr. Brombaugh and I exchanged a couple letters in the early 80s discussing organ design; so I've had a small personal attachment to his work since that time (there is a lovely and noteworthy 1995 Brombaugh organ in the chapel at Lawrence University, a stone's throw from my house). For the present release, Ritchie plays the Clavierübung III (plus some miscellaneous pieces) on Brombaugh's Anton Heiller Memorial Organ from 1986, located at Southern College of 7th Day Adventists in Collegedale, Tennessee. It has a distinctive, baroque sound, with fairly thin and prominent upperwork and notably flexible wind. It is tuned (as I think all the organs in this set are) to a non-equal temperament, which gives a bit of piquancy to the sound, and a little bloom to the resolutions. Mr. Brombaugh did not build too many instruments before his retirement (as opposed to, say, Aeolian-Skinner), and it's fun to find another large instrument of his recorded.

I've also always followed the output of the C. B. Fisk firm, both because a distant acquaintance of mine works at the shop, and also because the firm have simply done some amazing and innovative things over the years. The Fisk organ on this recording, the four-manual organ at House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, MN, is an instrument with which I have a little first-hand acquaintance.

I got an up-close look at the organ in the early 80s, back when it was quite newly-installed and the talk of the organ world. At the time of its installation, it was the largest mechanical action organ built in this country, and--I think--the largest organ the Fisk firm had built to that point. The organ clearly had fashionable neo-Baroque design details--non-equal temperament, mechanical key and stop action, Werkprinzip layout--and yet was tonally not fully on board with the aesthetic, having both German and French elements; an interesting hybrid, as it were. It's a spectacular-looking organ. I attended several church services in order to hear the instrument (no easy matter for me), and I remember attending a recital by the great French organist Marie-Claire Alain on this organ. (During the reception afterward, I asked her what she thought of the instrument. "Very heavy! Very heavy," she said. "Especially when coupled. It needs a Barker lever!") [addendum: I see now on the Fisk website that a "in 1992 a Kowalyshyn Servopneumatic lever was added to make key touch more sensitive when playing with the manuals coupled."] I remembered the acoustic being awfully dry and short, and this recording confirms my memory there. The organ builder Charles Hendrickson told me some years ago that he had wandered around the organ cases after installation and was surprised at how "opened up" all the pipework was; Fisk had gone all out to get volume out of the instrument. The fact that it did not completely overwhelm listeners was a testament to just how dead the room is. It's fun to hear this instrument again on a good recording, and to reacquaint myself with it. It's not the most interesting or successful organ in this set, but it's still a noteworthy and very musical achievement.

In summary, this is a first-rate set either for those looking to supplement their collection, or for those who would like to explore the state-of-the-art in Bach organ interpretation.


shrimplate said...

The survey I have is played by Hans Fagius on various Swedish organs; mostly Baroque originals or reconstructions.

As my young ears were developing, E. Power Biggs was just about the only organist of sufficient popularity to be available in the record stores and catalogues back then. Now I think his style and instrument choice would not seem entirely appropriate to Bach, as magnificent as his music sounds on *any* instrument.

There was this guy Virgil Fox, a bit of a nut, who toured with a psychedelic light show. I heard/saw him at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center back in the 1970's, a venue better suited to large orchestral or rock music concerts. He mostly played Bach as I recall. The audience was 50/50 DFH's and older classical fans.

I'm still working my way through the Cantatas, and I've only listened to a handful of the organ discs in the set I have. Of course I also have a few odd collections of the organ works, aquired randomly. It never ceases to amaze me. Bach has no modern counterpart; none presently living, anyways.

wunelle said...

The Hans Fagius BIS cycle is phenomenal--it's my favorite cycle as a whole, though I'd pick and choose to make my own best set. The elan of his playing was a revelation to me.

Biggs and Virgil Fox became competitors of a sort (like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins), each trying to proselytize Bach in his own way, with Biggs increasingly taking up the period performance mantle. There are a couple great clips on YouTube of an elderly Fox playing Durufle. He was a genius in his own right, though promoting a very different aesthetic from my own tastes.

There are many ways to be smart, and genius often writes its own rules; none of these things are absolute, of course. But Bach towers above all for me. Bar none.

Anonymous said...

I don't know much about Bach, please forgive me. I can only comment with a lyrical quote from one of my all-time favorite bands of the 80s, and I mean this with all sincerity when I say, and I quote, "Too much is never enough, too much is never enough, can't fill a bottomless cup, too much is never enough. Too much is never, never, never enough!" Correct me if I'm wrong.

wunelle said...

We might even quote a REALLY obscure 80s band and say:

He's got everything the common man lacks,
Tackily concealed in his Double-Mint Slacks!

Hello to the Fabulously Talented Amy Banks! I wondered what became of you, and it sounds like you've found finer Steaming Jacuzzis to soak in! ;-)

shrimplate said...

WTF was that?!

You folks are way over my head. And I'm usually out of my head. So I can appreciate such things...

wunelle said...

A thousand years ago I was in a band in Minneapolis (the Steaming Jacuzzis), drumming and singing (and doing a bit of songwriting as well).

The commenter sang in the band, and this is our first contact in about 20 years.