Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Two Recordings of Bach

Weimar Preludes and Fugues
Joan Lippincott, organ
Paul Fritts, University of Notre Dame, IN (2004)
Gothic Records G-49260 (2008)
  • BWV #s 532, 534, 537, 539, 542, 543, 545

Preludes and Fugues
Joan Lippincott, organ
Paul Fritts, Pacific Lutheran University, WA (1999)
Gothic Records G-49202 (2002)
  • BWV #s 541, 544, 546, 548, 572, 769


Joan Lippincott is the former head of the organ department at Westminster Choir College, where, along with the Curtis Institute, she undertook her own studies. She specializes in Bach, but has recorded a fairly broad repertoire. After a distinguished teaching career, she now makes her living as a concert organist.

These two recordings showcase Preludes and Fugues from two different periods of Bach's life: the youthful exuberance of his Weimar years, and the more polished weight of his Leipzig period. Care has been taken to select instruments appropriate to the resources which Bach had available when writing the pieces, in an effort to bring us as close as possible to the sound and spirit of Bach's creation. Both instruments are from the Tacoma, WA builder Paul Fritts and Company. For the Weimar disc Dr. Lippincott has chosen a well-developed two manual and pedal instrument from 2004, installed at the University of Notre Dame; and the Leipzig disc gets a larger (and much-recorded) three manual and pedal instrument from 1998 installed at Pacific University in Tacoma, WA in 1999. Both are beautiful, impressive instruments that give us the clear and vibrant, pure-organ sound representative of the state of organ building of Bach's day, and both are in sympathetic acoustics--the Notre Dame instrument particularly so.

Dr. Lippincott's interpretations remind me a bit of the late, great E. Power Biggs, in that they seem at their best like a spotlight trained on the score, a rare glimpse into the composer's brain. This is abstract music, written for the glory of its peculiar sound and for the joy of triumphing over the rules of counterpoint, and Dr. Lippincott has an obvious affinity for this repertoire. She finds the inspiration from within the pieces, rather than imposing it from without. On the whole, I think the CD of the Weimar pieces is the more successful of the two. The Notre Dame organ is not large (35 stops on two manuals and pedal) but the divisions are very well developed, and it produces an especially harmonious sound. The acoustic in the recital hall helps, being almost cathedral-like in its scope. Dr. Lippincott's performances here are spot-on, among the best of these pieces I've heard.

The other disc has some of my favorites of Bach's output, some really excellent pieces--BWV 572, 541 and 544 are among my most beloved music in any genre, and the Canonic Variations, BWV 769, come off especially well. The PLU organ (54 stops over three manuals and pedal) is similarly brilliant, another Fritts masterwork. But there are several rough edges among the selections, the occasional missed note and the like, and the disc doesn't hit its mark quite so squarely. The opening piece especially--the Piece d'orgue in G Major BWV 572--has several distracting moments. There is a rather glaringly misplayed pedal passage about halfway through, and a peculiarly absent-minded-sounding release before the final section. And in this piece particularly (though I must be careful not to declare an error something that merely grates on my personal tastes) my old nemesis flexible winding rears its head quite excessively. At times it sounds like a small child jumping rhythmically on the bellows.

(I feel a digression coming on.)

Looking at the CD's notes, I see that the Professor of Music and Organist Emeritus of Pacific Lutheran University (and contributor to the notes) is one David Dahl. It strikes me now that I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Dahl during a cross-country motorcycle trip I took in 1982. I rode into Eugene, OR and went in search of the shops of the organ builder John Brombaugh. Not finding anyone at the shop, I was pointed in the direction of a recent Brombaugh installation in town, and went to the church to look around. There I found an organ lesson in progress, a student working on the Adagio of Bach's Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C Major, BWV 564, taught by none other than (I presume) this same David Dahl. When the lesson ended, Dr. Dahl--whom I'd never met nor heard of--was very kind to talk with me for quite a while about the Brombaugh organ. One of the items we discussed was the organ's prominent flexible wind supply (the degree of flexibility of which, if memory serves, could be adjusted with a switch or drawknob), which Dr. Dahl was quite a proponent of. I remember he asked me to sing a note, and then he shoved back on my shoulder and we noted the quaver in my voice. His point was that music-making is a living thing, and we all react to what is going on around us. Sounds sensible enough, and (honestly grateful though I was for his time and attention) it wasn't until a couple hundred miles down the road that it struck me that we don't push each other around during a choir performance! The analogy just didn't really hold water for me, and it still doesn't; flexible winding, beyond a certain minimal point, just sounds like a wind-supply defect--a result perhaps of technical limitations from antiquity--that has been mistaken for something sonically beneficial.

But I've carped about that quite enough, I think. It hardly stands as much of an impediment to appreciating these performances. I think the glitches I note (if indeed they are glitches) would only attract the attention of the devotee, and they needn't deter anyone sampling these recordings. I see that Dr. Lippincott has most of the rest of Bach's output available on the Gothic label; I look forward to hearing more.

There are many excellent CDs of this repertoire, and these are worthy additions to the catalog. They showcase one of our country's great concert organists and some really great and artistic American organs. With my small reservations noted, I'm happy to add them to my collection.


shrimplate said...

Dude! You're an organ-music Wiki.

I always enjoy stopping by and learning more to help me with my own music-collecting. The Naxos discs you discuss above are high up on my list.

wunelle said...

If I weren't already very happily married, I would propose to Naxos.

I think they're almost single-handedly holding up classical music!