Sunday, February 24, 2008

Another Buxtehude Cycle

Buxtehude: Organ Works, Volume 6

Julia Brown, organist
The Martin Pasi organ of St. Cecelia Cathedral, Omaha, NE
Naxos Records (follow link above to see track listing)


In looking through Naxos's recent CD releases, I see an ongoing Buxtehude series by organist Julia Brown, at least three volumes of which are recorded on the Martin Pasi organ in Omaha (their Op. 14) which captured my attention in George Ritchie's Bach cycle.

A quick listen on iTunes made for a very happy discovery. Although originally from Brazil, Dr. Brown currently holds the organist's bench at First United Methodist Church in Eugene, Oregon, and she earned her Master's and Doctorate at Northwestern University under the watchful eye of Wolfgang Rübsam. And his influence seems immediately apparent in her playing: she shares his vibrant but flexible sense of time (which always sounds more convincing with Buxtehude than with Bach to my ear), and her registrations and interpretations are confident and outspoken, at times even cocky; her confidence is exhilarating.

The organ is more interesting than I realized. From the Ritchie release, I knew the organ to have a non-equal temperament and mechanical action. But it seems the Pasi firm have gone considerably beyond that. From a bit of digging online, I learned that the instrument actually features two separate, selectable temperaments--making it like two organs in one. From the Pasi website:

The organ is comprised of 55-stops over three manuals and pedal, 29 of which are playable in two temperaments: 1/4-comma meantone and a new well-tempered tuning devised for this instrument by Kristian Wegscheider of Dresden, Germany.

This is the first I'd heard of the idea, but--of course--it seems that the shop of C.B. Fisk tried their hand at the same thing with their Op. 85 at the Memorial Church at Stanford University, Standford, CA. In both cases, extra pipes are included in the selected ranks, and, in the case of the Pasi organ, different stop-activation methods determine which pipes are engaged.

Again, from the Pasi website:
[29 of the organ's stops] ...contain eight extra notes per octave, tipping the scale of the concept from a single organ with extra pipes to the equivalent of two organs which share a third of their pipes. The abundance of extra pipes allows the circulating temperament to accommodate much of the Romantic and modern repertoires, while retaining enough key color to bring Baroque music alive and to lock into tune the mixtures and reeds in the best keys.

All stops in the Oberwerk and selected stops in the Hauptwerk and Pedal divisions are available in both temperaments. The well-tempered and meantone organs share the following notes in every octave: C, D, G and A. The desired temperament may be chosen independently in each division by the choice of stops. Each dual-tempered voice has two sliders and separate stop controls: traditional drawknobs for the well-tempered stops and Italian-style levers for the meantone stops.

I'm interested to know how limited the interaction between the "two organs" must be. Obviously, all 55 stops are available with the milder well-tempering. But presumably things played in meantone temperament are restricted to a much smaller 29 stops. Or can one mix and match? Maybe it depends on the key in which one is playing.

Regardless, the proof, as the saying goes, is in the pudding. The organ sounds wonderfully authentic and entirely of a piece (even if it's really of two pieces!). These performances hold their own with the excellent Hans Davidsson releases on the wonderful GOArt organ in Sweden (and, indeed, with Rübsams own Buxtehude cycle from 20 years ago). Given my enthusiasm for those releases, this is high praise indeed. It goes without saying that Naxos has given us a fantastic sounding disc.

I see that Dr. Brown also has three discs of Scheidemann on a Brombaugh organ in Eugene, OR. I'll sample those shortly.


shrimplate said...

"Mixing and matching" temperments... that's a very interesting idea.

My teacher Edith Borroff used to say that there could never be a true fusion of jazz and classical music because each really employed different tuning systems. But I suspect there's no aesthetic reason why you couldn't try to assimilate temperments.

It's not a new idea. Split keyboards and the use of pedals to access variations of pitch have been part of classical music experiments ever since keyboards were invented.

One of the reasons I enjoy a capella performances of Renaissance choral music is because in that medium you can pretty much employ something like true temperment.

Oh, and all praises be to Naxos, the best record company ever.

wunelle said...

Yeah, it's interesting that the whole idea of temperament flies out the window, as it were, with unaccompanied vocal music. Singers tune to each other. It's only when the pitches are fixed by some mechanical means that the discrepancies come into play.

I think this is one of the reasons that I so dislike vibrato, and the places where it's found: opera, big romantic choruses, string chamber music. (This latter always bugs me--it's as though the players hands are always moving, almost as with palsy, and the wide vibrato is the norm; the steady tone is a device to be employed very sparingly.)

To my ear--and I know there are plenty who disagree with me--the whole concept of precision flies out the window when no one plays a set pitch. Big choirs like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir where everyone sings with vibrato sound hazy and indistinct to me; I can find no musical satisfaction this way.

wunelle said...

And yeah, what a miracle Naxos is!

shrimplate said...

Vibrato is (or rather it should be) an ornament. I pretty much feel the same way you do about it.

Kevin Vogt said...

As cathedral organist at the time of the commissioning and installation of the Pasi dual-tempered organ, perhaps I can shed some light: The well-tempered "side" of the Pasi organ is "derived" from 1/4-comma meantone, with the notes C, D, G, and A being common to both sides of the organ. It is a 3rd-based temperament, much like Kirnberger III, but allowing for most of the 19th C. repertoire to be performed convincingly (see Robbe Delcamp's Widor recording, also on Naxos).

It is indeed possible to "mix and match" to some extent. There is quite a bit more information about this organ now on the Pasi website, including my doctoral dissertation: