Saturday, March 15, 2008

One Good Turn Deserves Another

Widor: Organ Favorites
Robert Delcamp at the Martin Pasi organ of the St. Cecilia Cathedral, Omaha
Naxos Records, 8.570310
Excerpts from Symphonies 1-6 and 9, etc.


I've long wondered what role authenticity really plays in musical enjoyment. I found myself very early on drawn to the sound of period instruments in baroque music, but not, I think, because these sounds were supposed to be "correct." No, I just liked the fundamental sounds better; I liked the clarity and intonation and / or lack of affected vibrato in music of my favored period. Even more contrarily, I always wondered whether more contemporary music wouldn't sound better on these older sounds (we do the converse of this all the time, by playing antique music on modern orchestral instruments, harpsichord music on piano, Buxtehude and Pachelbel and Scheidemann on modern organs). I knew that the music of Cesar Franck, say, played on the Flentrop organ at Harvard University--an organ whose sound I so loved and which was so effective in Bach--would go against custom and even the composer's stated desires; and yet I still felt the music would come off really well in that setting. Different, sure; but moving and wonderful and maybe better in some ways--small and focused and intimate.

Well, I never did get to hear Franck on that particular Flentrop (though E. Power Biggs recorded Hindemith to very good effect on it), but I've heard quite a bit of his music on very different instruments than Franck had in mind; and as with Bach's music Franck has a near-universal appeal that transcends period specifics.

This present release is another opportunity to put some of these questions front and center. The instrument, the Op. 14 of 2003 from the shops of Martin Pasi and Associates, resides in the St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha, NE, and is familiar to us from two recently-reviewed discs of baroque music performed by George Ritchie and Julia Brown (another issue from which Buxtehude cycle I have since acquired, recorded on the same instrument). We may recall from those reviews that the organ is really two organs in one, sporting a dual temperament. The whole organ of 55 stops on three manuals and pedal is available in well-tempering, and a smaller portion--29 stops on two manuals and pedal--is available in quarter-comma meantone. This is a really valuable tool for exploring the music of Bach and earlier, as those temperaments were a fact of life before the 19th Century, and music sounds different when tempered.

(Drawknobs for well-tempered; sliding levers for meantone.)

But the organs which Cesar Franck played were not tempered, at least not anything like what Buxtehude knew. So the idea of a non-equally-tempered organ being used for more contemporary music--music made familiar to us via equal tempering--seemed to push my old-sounds-with-new-music idea out nearer the uncharted waters. Once again it's our friends at Naxos who deliver the goods for us. The prevalent well-tempering of the organ (all 55 of the organ's stops are available this way) is subtle enough that it might be mistaken for equal temperament if you weren't paying close attention. None of the keys is woefully off color, and the Widor Symphonies spend much of their time in familiar tonalities. But these pieces meander through a much wider range of tonalities than was common in the Baroque, resulting in an occasional piquancy from the tuning and a glow to some of the resolutions that you don't hear with equal tempering. It's a little unexpected, but just as delightful here as with music where it's more commonly found.

And quite apart from the tuning, this instrument is clearly not from Cavaillé-Coll's workshop. It's a nicely powerful instrument with a solid 32' underpinning in a really wonderful, reverberant space, but it doesn't have a characteristic French sound; the reeds especially lack that brassy snarl that so characterizes C-C's organs. Just the same, I think it sounds fantastic in this literature, even if it might have sounded a bit odd to Franck's ears.

More distracting than the temperament to me is the organ's fairly flexible wind, which makes itself known in some of the big, chordy sections of the Symphony Finales. It's not extreme, and I don't mean to protest (though in fact I do think of it as a defect of antiquity that someone resurrected centuries later in an attempt to be "fashionable" and others followed suit), but it's an affectation that one simply isn't used to hearing in instruments after the Baroque. And a couple times I wonder if I didn't hear the instrument struggling to provide enough wind to meet the organist's demands. (In a couple recordings of Biggs' Flentrop, one could hear some parts of the organ flat slightly at the big climaxes, something which organ builder Fritz Noack told me a couple years ago was due to inadequate winding of the instrument's rückpositiv division--which malady he was hired to remedy. Well, this Pasi organ's temperament might be playing a role here: were the meantone stops added to the mix for big climaxes, for example?) Maybe my ears were just playing tricks on me. The effect, if there was one, was very subtle and nothing to prevent a thorough enjoyment of the performances.

Organist Robert Delcamp hails from Sewanee, Tennessee, where he is Professor of Music, University Organist and Choirmaster, and Chair of the Music Department at The University of the South. He has made several recordings for Naxos, mostly involving the music of Marcel Dupré. This marks Dr. Delcamp as a specialist in French repertoire and makes him a natural for Widor's music (Dupré was Widor's assistant at St. Sulpice in Paris for many years before taking over the position when Widor retired), and his performances are really excellent. He takes his time to let the organ speak into the great space, and he lingers over Widor's writing like someone who is trying to tell a story. I've never heard these pieces better, and rarely as good.

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