Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Definitive Statement

The Op. 31 Pieces en style libre of Louis Vierne
George C. Baker at the Cavaillé-Coll organ of St. Ouen, Rouen.
Solstice Records, SOCD 815/6, recorded 1993


I came to know of George Baker about 20 years ago as the producer of my favorite disc of Duruflé's organ works by Todd Wilson on the Delos label.

I noted the oddity at the time of the producer making a personal statement in the CD notes about how HE had hoped to make this very recording in his concert organist days before he abandoned his musical ambitions to concentrate on dermatology--not least because most of us have no idea (and could care less) what the hell a producer does on a classical music CD. So his little personal note seemed out of place. But, after all, he had interviewed Maurice Duruflé personally, and it seems as though Dr. Baker was responsible for the choice of the marvelous Schudi organ for the project. Anyway I remembered the note, and a decade later when I visited the instrument in Dallas I spoke with the church organist about that recording. "Do you ever see George Baker?" I asked. "Oh yes, he's here all the time!" was the reply. A couple years after that I found Dr. Baker acting as organist on a CD release of Vierne Pieces de fantaisie (a companion release to the present one) and shortly thereafter on a Naxos volume of Dupré. So I guess skin maladies were not able to restrain his passions after all.

Our current release was recorded on the magnificent Cavaillé-Coll instrument at St. Ouen in Rouen. I'm less familiar with the full set of Op. 31 Pieces en style libre, and do not find them quite as engaging on the whole as the later Pieces de fantaisie or the fantastic Symphonies (some of the selections from this set, though, have achieved standard-repertoire status). Still, I reserve the right to fall hard for them with repeated listenings. And we can only conclude that Dr. Baker returned to his organ passions none too soon, as his playing as brilliant: authentic, confident, passionate, knowing. If he's as good a dermatologist as he is an organist, then I can see why his choice has been so hard to make and / or keep.

And then there's that Cavaillé-Coll organ. It seems to be a toss-up as to which extant C-C takes the prize as the greatest of the Great Man's instruments, a contest between St. Ouen and St. Sulpice in Paris. Both are national treasures, and however you count the votes this organ is stunning, magnificent. It produces such bold, captivating sounds, and it gathers into a fearsome tutti that takes your breath away. It's immediately apparent to the listener that this organ is something quite beyond the norm. What a rare convergence of acoustic and builder--and, as it happened, composer. Vierne reigned over the organ loft in Notre Dame for 37 years, toiling at yet another of Cavaille-Coll's masterpieces (somewhat altered today, though still fabulous), and it bears repeating that his instruments greatly seeded and fertilized the great flowering of compositions from César Franck up thru Messiaen and Duruflé and on to the present occupants of Paris's organ lofts.

Every recording on this instrument is a treat, and this one is particularly excellent. And to have one of France's greatest organ composers on the menu, served up by a great and sympathetic artist, it just doesn't get better.

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