Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Where I Get Lost On My Way to the Review

Pas De Dieu - Music Sublime & Spirited
Janette Fishell, organ
C. B. Fisk, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Greenville NC, 2005
Loft Records, LRCD-1082

Music of Franck, Vierne, Ferko, Litaize, Duruflé


The organs of C. B. Fisk are disproportionately represented in my CD collection. Partly this is because, as I noted in an earlier post, I've had a little personal contact with one or two of the firm's organs; but it's also because the firm has been so consistently innovative and adventurous in its choices and projects. Charles Fisk was among the earliest contemporary American organ builders to construct historically-informed neo-baroque instruments--including an instrument for Wellesley College (Op. 72, 1982) that featured quarter-comma meantone tuning, mutant keyboard and all. But far from confining themselves to that niche, the firm have also done many conventional church organs, big American Classic concert organs (e.g. Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas) and even earnest copies of the work of French great Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (Oberlin College, OH), and everything in between.

This wide range is not an unprecedented situation in the organ world. Several other firms which pop readily to mind--Flentrop of Holland, Marcussen of Denmark and the Austrian firm Rieger, just to name a few--have also dabbled in this cross-genre business. But none to my knowledge have gone so far as Fisk, whose range is nearly all-encompassing. This is kind of a double-edged sword, as it makes the task more difficult to know exactly what the firm stands for; and more than this, it would seem to make actual boundary-stretching innovation (as opposed to just visiting the existing genres) more difficult, as the company is not singularly focused. (I don't know--is it possible to innovate in an historical genre? Is the blending of genres an innovation anymore?) I love all the things Fisk have done, from their most radical neo-baroque experiment to their fabulous concert hall organ in Dallas; maybe that's all that matters.

One unifying thing among all of Fisk's instruments is the use of mechanical key action. (For the uninitiated, this means that each key of each keyboard has a direct, mechanical linkage to the pallet which admits air to the pipes speaking that note.) From his start in the 60s, Charles Fisk's commitment to mechanical action was a pretty radical departure from the norm. I don't know that Fisk have never made an electric action organ, but clearly tracker action is one of their things, and this choice informs everything else about the instrument, from layout to wind pressures to voicing. While an organist's touch does not affect the actual tonal quality of the sound produced, there is still thought by many to be an artistic connection formed between player and instrument by the intimacy of this mechanism.

The advances of the Electric Age--fully electric key action among them--changed organ building profoundly, enabling organs to be built of almost unlimited size and layout. A single rank of pipes could be made to serve several purposes, e.g. as a manual rank at 16' pitch, and, with an extension, as a 32' rank on the pedal; likewise, a rank could serve as both foundation and mutation by simple manipulation of wiring. And indeed we see these things, as well as much-improved console assists for the organist--e.g. crescendo pedals and multi-level combination actions--on the organs of Hook & Hastings and Ernest Skinner and others.

With antique instruments, of course, some kind of mechanical linkage was required--there was no other option. But the march of technology enabled larger and larger instruments, until we get to the behemoths like the Wanamaker Grand Court organ or the instruments at West Point or Atlantic City, which would be impossible without electric key action. Between the two extremes we have intermediate steps; although the big Cavaillé-Colls in France were still necessarily built with mechanical key action, they have pneumatic Barker machines to assist with what is after all a great mechanical load--I guess this is technically "tracker-pneumatic" action. The higher wind pressures of an orchestral organ make opening the pallets more difficult, and coupling the manuals together simply requires more force than a person can deftly provide. (In the interest of historical authenticity, Fisk's Cavaillé-Coll imitation at Oberlin College has a similar servo-assisted mechanical action, even though this must be a more expensive and complicated method of construction on a big instrument.)

We could easily have a discussion about the merits of mechanical-versus-electric action--and I seem to have run off in that direction. For our present purposes I mean only to note that Fisk have stayed with mechanical action throughout their wide range of instrument genres--including those genres where we might not expect to see it--and it's interesting to contemplate what other things fall into place because of this fundamental choice. With an instrument like theirs at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, mechanical action is a bit unexpected, and so we find a modern synthesis of styles. Likewise the Lynn Dobson concert hall organ at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia (among several others I can think of). Here we have an instrument with both a mechanical action console at the organ's case, and also a remote, electric-action console down on the stage. These things all represent relatively new territory.

The new organ on this release, the shop's Op. 126 from 2005 in St Paul's Episcopal Church in Greenville, NC, continues with Fisk's commitment to mechanical action. And it also builds on their research into Aristide Cavaillé-Coll's work for the firm's organ at Oberlin College. The Greenville organ is unapologetically French, but it's a bit lighter in tone than Oberlin and it benefits from a more sympathetic acoustic than the one at Oberlin. The excellence of this NC acoustic leads me to wonder (again) whether the "French-ness" of the instrument is in any way reliant on the acoustic--and again how big a handicap the acoustic was to the firm's aims at Oberlin.

Whatever the cause, this Greenville organ is particularly successful, offering a rare blend and unity of sound in a spectacularly beautiful package. The Fisk firm have many organs in their oeuvre to be proud of, but this is certainly one where everything came together beautifully.

This release features Janette Fishell, Distinguished Professor of Music at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC, where she heads the Organ Performance and Sacred Music degree programs and is Chair of Keyboard Studies. The CD includes selections by Louis Vierne and Gaston Litaize, the lovely Priére by Cesar Franck (one of my favorite organ works), plus Duruflé's Prelude, Adagio and Choral Variations on Veni Creator. We also find a premier of the Livre d'orgue of longtime Chicago area resident and organist Frank Ferko (b. 1950). It's an excellent repertoire to show off the instrument, and Dr. Fishell's performances are vibrant and spot-on.

In Bach's time, the pipe organ was the most complicated, sophisticated machine with which people had regular contact. Today, the actual inner workings of a Yamaha synthesizer or something from the Kurzweill shop probably trump that claim, to say nothing of all the complex non-musical things that are part of our everyday lives. But a pipe organ is still a daunting undertaking, an endeavor requiring expertise in metals and woodworking, in design and acoustics, and increasingly in electronics as well. It's a field with deep roots back into history, foundations which strongly inform the industry present-day. There is a delight in knowing that no two are exactly the same, and even instruments which are similar on paper can be widely different in the flesh. This makes a new instrument's success contingent on many different threads. And while all organs fascinate me just by virtue of what they are, it's still a special thrill to find one where things make that rare convergence, like the focusing of a light with a magnifying glass.

Based, admittedly, on only one recording (albeit an excellent one), I think Fisk have given us a keeper.

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