Monday, January 25, 2010

The Do-Everything Machine

L'orgue à quatre visages: Jean-Christophe Geiser at the Op. 120 Fisk organ (2003) of Lausanne Cathedral, Switzerland
Loft Records, ORG-7210

Vincent Lübeck: Praeludium in d minor
Pierre Du Mage: Suite der 1er ton
Franz Liszt: Evocation a la Chapelle Sixtine
Maurice Duruflé: Suite pour orgue, Op. 5


Here's the first of a couple recent recordings of organs from my favorite American shop, CB Fisk of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Their Op. 120 for Lausanne Cathedral in Switzerland is one of the first major pipe organs from America to be installed in a classic European cathedral. And it's a major work from the Fisk firm, both in size and location and in the ambition of its design. (An article about the organ from the NYT can be found here.)

In the liner notes for this CD, Wolfram Adolph writes:
To perform a wide range of repertoire in concerts and in the protestant services in the cathedral, the new organ contains four different musical style options in one great cathedral organ: the French classic style of Francois-Henri Cliquot, north German sounds of the polyphonic Hanseatic aesthetics of the 17th and 18th centuries, typical French symphonic colors after Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899) and German romantic stops in the style of Friedrich Ladegast.

So this instrument is effectively four disparate organs in one case, which is a fascinating idea. Fisk was one of the earliest firms in this country to embrace tracker action and non-equal temperaments. They have built a whole host of beautiful and artistic instruments over the years, covering a pretty wide philosophical range, from small organs tuned to quarter-comma meantone, to the snarling behemoth in Dallas's Meyerson Symphony Center. In the last decade they built a fabulous instrument for Oberlin college that sought to copy the construction and tonal design of the great 19th Century French organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. This organ for Lausanne Cathedral continues in this daring and experimental vein.

Based on this recording, this organ is another triumph for Fisk. The instrument, and Lausanne Cathedral organist Jean-Christophe Geiser, acquit themselves beautifully in all this repertoire, and I'm eager to hear more of the instrument. I love these experiments, where modern instruments are, to varying degrees, built to the standards and practices of other eras--an expensive and painstaking undertaking with a large pipe organ. But I must also confess to a bit of schizophrenia about this particular instrument and particularly its four-in-one mission. Much as I love the idea of it, I'm not convinced that this experiment contributes much to the organ's success. A bit of a digression might help me make my point.

I had similar feelings about Fisk's lovely organ at Oberlin College (their Op. 116). It's a really magnificent musical instrument, though not, near as I can tell, because it purports to be what Cavaillé-Coll might have built. The instrument has a French accent, but I'd never mistake it for a C-C. Some of this, as I said in that review, is surely the acoustic--Finney Chapel is very dry. But a big part of the reason I'm not fooled is (forgive me for repeating myself) the relative smoothness of the Fisk's voicing compared to the big C-Cs in, say, St. Ouen and St. Sulpice. C-C's large instruments have a shocking snarl at tutti, almost a harshness, which comes from their very brash reeds and shrill upperwork. These elements incongruously contribute to the organ's glorious sound. The Oberlin Fisk makes plenty of volume, but with these rough edges smoothed away the organ sounds closer to their own Meyerson instrument in Dallas than the Cavaillé-Colls they purport to copy. It's less a function of the subtle voicing of stops and more of the large-scale characteristics of how C-C made power, I think.

Fisk's goal with the Lausanne instrument of doing justice to four different styles is impossible for me to judge as I might judge a Cavaillé-Coll replica (beyond saying all the pieces here sound lovely). But I just wonder what this experiment amounts to in practice, whether it's really possible to cobble together four proper instruments of these periods and have them play well together without so much massaging that nothing meaningful of the four original styles remains.

This in turn raises questions about what compromises are necessary to "faithfully" play widely-varied styles of organ music on a single instrument, and whether those compromises in the end fail to do full justice to any of the styles. It's exactly because Cavaillé-Coll (or Ernest M. Skinner, for that matter) was pursuing his own tonal ideas--and not trying to honor others'--that his instruments are so distinctive; he was less constrained by having to do justice to other musical styles, since he was deeply immersed in a vibrant, modern movement--one which we now revisit and design organs to mimic.

This Fisk at Lausanne sounds lovely and impressive and all of a piece. But none of the separate styles sound to my ear more than a hint or suggestion. Like the Finney Chapel organ, this is an impressive instrument in its own right, but I don't think it owes its success to its stylistic experiment. Still, success is success, and I give all credit to the Fisk shop for taking a challenge like this on and making a top-shelf run at it.

1 comment:

shrimplate said...

I really have to try some of these recordings. We recently installed a new Paradigm subwoofer and I think we may be able to give such things a good hearing. I am especially interested in hearing a smaller organ tuned in meantone.

About Plath- I would recommend skipping The Bell Jar and just reading the Ariel poems, because that's where her "voice" really came to fruition. I have yet to see the movie.