Saturday, April 19, 2008

State-of-the-Art Fisk

Organ Odyssey
Mary Preston at the Lay Family Concert Organ,
Fisk Op. 100, Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas
Reference Recordings, RR-113
Music of Karg-Elert, Vierne, Mendelssohn, Widor, Ives, Messiaen, Widor, and John la Montaine.


This instrument has cropped up on this blog several times before in my reviews or talk of organ construction. A concert hall organ might be expected to represent a firm's ultimate effort, having talents ranging from the power to pummel all within a large space into a pudding of awe to the versatility necessary for playing a very wide range of repertoire; and this Fisk instrument is something of a torch-carrier for the current state of the art; it's the quintessential modern concert hall organ. It's the instrument to which Lynn Dobson's recent organ for Philadelphia's Kimmel Center will most naturally be compared (I'm still waiting for a solo recording of that new instrument.)

I've reviewed several recordings in this space made on Yale University's magnificent Skinner organ in Woolsey Hall; these recordings inevitably cause me to think of this particular Fisk, both because the two instruments are in pursuit of the very same goal, and because each is perhaps the most prominent organ of this type built in its own day. The Woolsey Skinner seems suffused to me with a kind of inner glow, a unified sonic genius that would ensure that Ernest M. Skinner went into the history books not only as an expert builder of first-quality large symphonic pipe organs, but also as someone who left a distinct sonic stamp on organ building in this country and around the world.

It might fairly be said that Charles Fisk's legacy is further-reaching, one that covers a much broader range of tonal and mechanical philosophy than Skinner's. Fisk built in a pretty broad range of styles, and his firm have branched out even further since Fisk's death in 1983; perhaps no single instrument can fairly stand for all that Mr. Fisk's ambitions encompassed.

So with the caveat that even a magnificent organ like the one in Dallas's Meyerson Symphony Center cannot speak for the totality of the firm, this is still an instrument which has gained a real prominence in the musical world. Built in 1991, the organ boasts over 4,500 pipes spread over four manuals and pedal, and ranks as one of the world's most important and ambitious organs built for this kind of setting.

Part of the reason this Fisk instrument comes to mind as I listen to Yale's Skinner is because this Skinner is so very distinctive--and so different sounding than this state-of-the-art Fisk. However immensely impressed I am by this Fisk, I would certainly not confuse it for the Skinner in Woolsey hall, nor would I be able to identify it as a Fisk instrument in a blind test. I can't say with certainty that I could do this for Woolsey's Skinner either, but I think I'd come much closer. I'm not sure if there's anything like a fair litmus test here, but all these things are pieces of a puzzle that I'm trying to assemble in my mind as to what sonic components comprise an organ's style, and what elements make some of these instruments more distinctive than others.

I think one of the things contributing to my inability to identify this organ blind is that this Fisk is attempting to give the organist maximum flexibility for a wide repertoire. We might even say the firm have done a fantastic job of executing other people's tonal preferences. Thus, there is a French-inspired Résonance division and an English-derived Tuba division, and the rest of the organ built to unify those two worlds. I daresay that Ernest M. Skinner seemed more apt to build an instrument that conformed to his own internal compass about what an organ should be--and he made quite a sales pitch about why his tonal ideas were correct--and that repertoire played on it would thus be "Skinnerized." And it was his genius that his ideas seemed sonically unified and viable. This Fisk, by contrast, seems to try and deftly straddle several lines of stylistic demarcation, all unified by skillful voicing and a kind of central guiding hand.

(Oh yeah, and it looks jaw-dropping amazing!)

Mary Preston is the organist of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and she is the Curator of this magnificent organ. She has now recorded several discs on the instrument, covering Duruflé's big works, a Widor Symphony, a couple compositions by Max Reger, and Reubke's Sonata on the 94th Psalm, among others. Now we have a recent Reference Recordings release featuring German and French works, plus a couple American compositions as well. All these recordings show Mrs. Preston as a highly-skilled virtuoso, and also a musician of pretty broad range. She knows her way around this instrument, and demonstrates its many colors most deftly. It does what a concert hall instrument ought to do: great justice to repertoire of different schools and periods.

The opening, majestic chords of Karg-Elert's March on "Nun danket alle Gott" start the recital, and we travel through, among others, a frothy Op. 55 Piéce de fantaisie of Louis Vierne, one of Mendelssohn's Sonatas, and the compelling stridency of Messiaen's Dieu parmi nous as we go (the Messiaen seems most persuasively presented). Ives's Variations on 'America' are a whimsical bit of youthful writing, easily accessible and based on the most familiar of tunes. She finishes the recital with the second most famous of all organ pieces, the final movement Toccata of Widor's Fifth Symphony, all played in exemplary fashion.

One of the things I particularly love about the instrument is the immediacy with which it speaks into what is still a pretty generous acoustic for a modern concert hall (pains were taken in the hall's construction to make it organ-friendly, including having concrete-lined resonance chambers which can be opened and closed according to preference). The organ's casework helps focus the sound such that every pipe is audible. The Fisk has a more developed (or at least a more prominent) upperwork than the Woolsey organ, and there is an engaging, almost shrill aggressiveness to the instrument's tutti which reminds me of some of the great French organs in Paris (though with quite different-sounding reeds).

Alas, I may wring my hands forever on this topic without quite finding the conclusion I seek. But so long as there are instruments like this one to raise the question, I'll be happy to consign myself to the endless trek.

The recording, as "Reference Recording" suggests, is excellent, which is the more impressive given the instrument's huge dynamic range.

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