Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Mother Road

Bach: Great Chorales of the Clavierübung III
Murray Forbes Somerville at the Harvard Flentrop
Raven Records, OAR-750
  • Ten Chorale Preludes, BWV 669-671, 676, 678, 680, 682, 684, 686, 688
  • Prelude and Fugue in E-flat, "St. Anne"


This instrument was made famous by the late concert organist E. Power Biggs, who recorded six volumes of Bach on it, plus Hindemith's organ sonatas and some Sweelinck and several others. Since Biggs' death in 1977, the instrument has been regularly played, but recorded much less frequently. The Harvard University Organist Murray Forbes Somerville recorded the Orgelbüchlein on it 20 years or so ago now, and organist John Ayer did a musical tribute to Biggs a few years back. On this present disc, recorded in 2000, Dr. Somerville finishes his tenure at Harvard by recording about half of the Third part of the Clavierübung.

I confess have a exaggerated soft spot for this particular organ, and I'm frankly surprised to learn there is a recording on it which I've somehow missed (I've scoured my CDs a couple times, convinced that this purchase was a duplicate, but so far I can't find it). Years ago I even made a pilgrimage to Boston specifically to see this organ, and I was able to get a private tour of the instrument and was allowed to spend a couple hours on my own poking around and playing it. When I was first discovering the organ--and discovering Bach--in the early 80s, Biggs' recordings were in record stores everywhere. The existence of this particular instrument in Harvard's Germanic Museum was Biggs' doing, with the organist doing the research, commissioning the builder, and even paying for the instrument out of his own pocket (he later donated the organ to the University, I believe). This instrument played a huge role in awakening America's sensibilities to the riches of organ history, and specifically to the real virtues of baroque organ design, principles from which contemporary organ design had diverged sharply.

This awakening to the merits of baroque and pre-baroque organs began a couple decades before this Flentrop was installed at Harvard in 1958, and in fact American builders, responding to this awakening, had begun to take small, tentative steps to incorporate some of the baroque tonal and mechanical principles into their modern instruments. The preceding organ in the Germanic Museum's loft--prior to Biggs' Flentrop--came from the firm of Aeolian-Skinner, and was an experiment with Biggs to try out some of these new theories. The organ was broadcast weekly on radio, and became quite famous in its own right. But this Aeolian-Skinner "baroque" instrument was a travesty compared to what Biggs had played and recorded in Europe, and he wanted much more. The story goes that the tonal directorship of Aeolian-Skinner was coming vacant, and Biggs wanted that position for himself, confident that he could help the firm, and the American organ industry as a whole, take a giant leap back to the future. When the position was denied him, the most famous and influential organist in the world went to a Dutch builder and commissioned the instrument which helped put Skinner, and most of the other builders of "American Classic" organs, out of business entirely.

That's the story, anyway. But the instrument is quite able to tell the salient parts of its own story, the rest of this business falling away and leaving only music. It's a fairly small organ--27 stops and 34 ranks over three manuals and pedal--but it's in a spectacularly live acoustic, and the organ speaks with an astounding clarity. It seems possible to identify the sound of each individual pipe, and yet the ensemble comes together from disparate individual sounds in a most unexpected way. Dirk Flentrop has given the organ a bright, present character which sounds vibrantly musical, moreso than any other organ I've ever heard. I'm accustomed to thinking that it's just my early exposure to the instrument which biases me toward this favoritism, but even after a couple years without listening to these old recordings I find my excitement quickly renewed to hear it again; it's really a magical convergence of circumstances which add up to a confident and compelling musical statement.

Dr. Somerville writes in the CD notes:
The pipes, voiced on low wind pressure and placed on the historic form of slider chests, have a gentle, alive quality of sound, and the open-toe, un-nicked voicing gives an articulate quality. This instrument was among the first examples (and for many years by far the most prominent) of the "Baroque" or historical organ revival; Flentrop subsequently installed many other instruments throughout the United States. Though it now appears to us more a product of its time in its neo-Baroque austerity (with no tremulant, no strings, pronounced chiff, and equal temperament) it remains a beautifully musical organ in an almost ideal acoustic location.

The playing and recording are both first-rate. This one gets put in my special pile.

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