Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Another Mix of Nationalities

French on the Flentrop
J. Melvin Butler, organ
St. Mark's Cathedral, Seattle, WA; 1965
Loft Records, LRCD-1013

Works by Franck, Tournemire, Messiaen, Clerambault, Daquin, Balbastre and de Grigny.


The organ building firm of Flentrop from Zaandam, Holland is one of the organ world's most venerable and important concerns. Founded in 1903 by Hendrik Flentrop, the firm became by mid-century an early specialist in the study and faithful restoration of historic instruments, with a pointed specialty in mechanical action (at a time when few modern builders, at least of large instruments, were employing this mechanism). Holland and Northern Germany had been a hotbed of progressive organ design in the 17th and 18th Centuries, advancement symbiotically reflected in the works of Dieterich Buxtehude and Bach, Georg Böhm and Samuel Scheidt, Johann Pachelbel and many others, and in our own time the Flentrop firm helped lead the way in recognizing the virtues and merits of traditional organ building.

Flentrop popped onto the radar screen in the US after the firm's 1958 installation of an instrument in the Busch-Reisinger Germanic Museum at Harvard University, a commission from Anglo-American organist E. Power Biggs who had caught the period instrument bug during his travels and recordings in Europe.

Widely recorded and featured on radio broadcasts, this instrument was a revelation for organ fans: it was a small instrument and had no orchestral imitation stops, featuring instead traditional indigenous organ sounds. Its design followed the German werkprinzip, a group of principles around which historic organs had been constructed: wind pressures were generally lower than those used in modern times, and pipes were voiced accordingly, often with great care given to how individual ranks blended together. Also, each division of the organ was located in, and its sound focused by, its own discreet case. And of course the instrument featured mechanical action--a physical link between keyboards and the pipe valves; no electricity was involved except to run the blower. And the result was very different from the player's perspective, certainly, but also for the listener: direct and intimate, the sound had a carefully-composed blend and a highly musical intensity that was all its own. It's hard to overstate the role this instrument played in reshaping public tastes in organ sound. Through these early efforts, the organ reestablished its place as an autonomous musical instrument (and not as a one-person "orchestra").

So much for background. The instrument on our current recording hails from the same shop, not quite a decade after the Harvard instrument was built, when the "neo-baroque" revolution was in full swing. The organ in St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle was installed in 1965, and bears resemblance to the Harvard instrument on several fronts: it is also formed around werkprinzip ideas; it has similarly plain casework; it employs similarly unburnished facade pipes (as opposed to most organs, which have polished tin facades). And while the instrument is larger--as is the acoustic into which it speaks--it is voiced with the same attention and personality as the smaller Harvard instrument displays.

Biggs played the expected classic repertoire on his Flentrop, but he also stressed that the sound fundamental principles used in its design and construction would do justice to any music. And so in addition to recordings of Sweelinck and Gabrieli and lots of Bach, of course, we also got, for example, the organ sonatas of Paul Hindemith. Everything sounded brilliant: clear and lucid, and with a certain very musical intensity.

What I didn't hear from that Flentrop was anything from late-19th & 20th Century France. That organ lacked the appropriate reeds and any kind of swell box, which made for quite a stretch with this repertoire. But I always wondered what, say, a Franck Choral would sound like on that organ; not authentic, surely, but perhaps compelling just the same. The 1965 St. Mark's Flentrop has no such limitations (especially after a careful 1994 rebuild by Paul Fritts). Here we have the resources for anything in the organ repertoire. And it demonstrates, as Biggs predicted, how far a solid foundation can go in making a persuasive case. In addition to having very French-sounding reeds for solo work and in the Pedal, the voicing is clear and bright, and the mechanical action gives a crisp, immediate response.

J. Melvin Butler is a specialist in French repertoire, and gives a fabulous performance. I confess my heart flutters for the Franck and Tournemire and Messiaen here; I'm less able to connect with the French baroque, which is my own limitation. Doubtless the de Grigny and Balbastre and Daquin and Clerambault are as well-treated in Dr. Butler's hands, but I just find it hard to sink my teeth into them.

The recording, as always from Loft, is brilliant and quite silent. St. Mark's is a pretty cavernous space--well-suited to much of this repertoire--and the recording captures the space very well.


shrimplate said...

You should be teaching this stuff at college level. Thanks again for your informative writing.

(Listening to Buxtehude right now.)

wunelle said...

You're sweet!

Speaking of Buxtehude, I continue to toggle between the fabulous Hans Davidsson discs on that magnificent GOART organ in Sweden, and the Naxos releases by Julia Brown on that intriguing Martin Pasi organ in Omaha. Such a treasure trove of sonic riches!