Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Why Does It Sound That Way?

Of course, now that the music blog is dead I'm inspired to write about music. (Perfect way to guarantee continued anonymity.) The domain name for TheToneBigot.com has expired, though the site remains. But I expect at some point I'll go there and the link will no longer work. Anyway.


Guilmant: Complete Organ Sonatas
MDG Dabringhaus & Grimm MDG 316 0340-2
Ben Van Oosten at St. Ouen, Rouen

Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911) was a prolific composer for the organ as well as a teacher and virtuoso performer. He held the titular organist's chair at Trinité in Paris for 30 years (the same chair held 30 years later by Olivier Messiaen) and taught organ at the Conservatoire. These eight Sonatas are really a collection of multi-movement suites very much along the lines of what Vierne and Widor would later call Organ Symphonies--and what César Franck experimented with in his single-movement Grand Piéce Symphonique. The harmonic language is firmly tonal and reminiscent of Franck (who was only 15 years Guilmant's senior). Melodies are strong (though Franck is a tough act to follow in this regard) and Guilmant shows a masterly sense of how to make the organ sound and to work its resources.

I'm familiar with Ben Van Oosten, having his complete cycle of Widor symphonies. I see he has an extensive catalog of recordings, including the complete works of Marcel Dupré in 12 volumes (among other things). After his initial training in the Netherlands, he came to Paris to study with Andre Isoir and Daniel Roth. He has a superb feel for this French repertoire and his performances here are really excellent, feeling and technically perfect. His tempi are stately without dragging in any way, and he rises to the grandeur of the pieces in most convincing fashion. This instrument is said to be difficult to record, as the acoustic is vast and plays havoc with one's attempts to capture the "real" instrument. But MDG has done their usual fine work, and the disc is a sonic delight. Happily recommended.


Much as I appreciate the repertoire and its presentation, the real star for me is this magnificent organ. Built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1890, the organ at the Cathedral of St. Ouen in Rouen is a singularity, a true masterpiece. It was Cavaillé-Coll's last instrument, its dedication recital, by Widor, occurring a year after his death. Despite rebuildings in 1941 and 1955, the organ exists virtually in its original state and it lives in a space that is tailor-made for organ music--indeed, St. Ouen is no longer used as a church, but rather exists as an art space, a museum to gothic architecture, and concert hall (the best possible use of a place like this).

This instrument in St. Ouen is typically cited along with that in St. Sulpice in Paris (1862) as being the greatest works of probably the world's greatest organ builder. Cavaillé-Coll built magnificent instruments for many of Paris's great churches (most of which are now quite altered and all of which have their strengths) but these two are large instruments in expansive acoustics, and both exist in something close to their original states (his famous organ for Notre Dame in Paris has been extensively altered, though it remains an impressive musical instrument).

I can't field this acclaim without feeling, nestled like a Russian doll, the further question of what makes an organ great. I've harped on these themes before, I know, but listening to this instrument in St. Ouen raises fundamental questions about how organ sound works, about what an organ is supposed to sound like and how this sound relates to historical models and existing repertoire. There are no absolute answers to these questions, of course, only established practices. The pipe organ is an intrinsically conservative instrument, with a huge and historic body of music composed for it which any new instrument must accommodate, and this simple fact makes innovation difficult or at least slow-moving. Innovative present-day builders (I think of the American firm C.B. Fisk, for example) must make their mark by doing the expected things with excellence while introducing innovations at a measured pace.

Recent innovations in organ design (setting aside the growth of electronic sound production in the organ world) have been more technological than sonic: taking big concert hall organs as representative of the state of the art, most now feature a mechanical console and a second, flexible console that connects to the instrument electronically; most now have a recording system that allows performances to be captured and recreated in minute detail; most now have computerized control of the pistons which allow for large-scale changes in registration and setting. But sonically, a large modern organ must pay homage to what has come before it, to allow the instrument to do justice to Bach and Buxtehude, to de Grigny and Clerambault, to Franck and Widor and Vierne and Messiaen, to Sowerby and Herbert Howells, and to allow new composers the flexibility and versatility to venture out in new directions.

But when we listen to the great organs of history we are often hearing something quite new. I think of Cavaillé-Coll in this, naturally--the brilliant compositional Parisian school that I so adore arising from César Franck and continuing onto the present day literally owes its very existence to Cavaillé-Coll's vision and work--but also of America's Ernest M. Skinner. Neither builder was re-inventing what an organ was or the fundamentals of how it was supposed to sound, exactly, and yet both created a distinctive sonic world that changed the instruments that followed. They weren't trying necessarily to perfect somebody else's vision of what an organ was supposed to be; they had their own ideas and they pushed them out into the world. And in this way they carved out a niche for themselves in this long history of folks building these complicated machines.

When I listen to the organ at St. Ouen, I'm always a little shocked by how brash the sound is. It strikes me every time, even when I know it's coming. The organ is large, but not excessively so--64 stops and 84 ranks over four manuals and pedal (the organ at St. Sulpice is considerably larger--102/137 on five manuals and pedal), but it speaks into an immense, reverberant space. It has beautiful and varied solo stops, as expected. But given that organ sound is as much felt as heard, and that a certain volume is expected as a component of the awe the organ inspires in people, it's the task of filling so large a space that seems so challenging. Especially in 1890. So how does he do it?

This, to me, is his secret: he is not afraid to use rather ugly sounds in pursuit of a beautiful and awesome whole. Specifically, the big pedal reeds--and the upperwork needed to balance them--are really shocking in their harshness. French organ reeds are known for being brash and aggressive, but the big pedal reeds on this instrument are actually violent. Played on their own, I can't imagine most people thinking "that's a great, musical sound for an organ." It's an assault on the ears! Likewise the mixtures and other high-pitched stops that provide the organ's harmonic development: these are shrill, almost painful sounds on their own. But like Einstein looking at the world and realizing that reality is really something other than what it appears to be, Cavaillé-Coll was able to see that the roughness of these sounds would be smoothed out a bit by the rest of the tutti, and their edges would give shape and character to the sound overall. It's an odd concept to me; I'm used to thinking about non-solo registers as being good blending sounds, as being not terribly distinctive but useful for giving weight and body to the organ's massed sound. But here is one of the master builders giving non-solo registers an assertive, non-blending character, a character that intuition tells us will not play well with others. And yet here we are.

It's this violence that stays with me. The scale of the pedal reeds, especially the Bombarde 16' and Contre-Bombarde 32', seems absolutely immense, again almost to the point of producing non-musical sounds. I'd love to know the deliberations on how the scale was arrived at. In any organ the 16' and 32' pedal reeds will likely sound a bit anti-social on their own, but in this case the effect is extreme. For all the power of a big organ like the Skinner at Woolsey Hall or the Fisk organ at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, I've never heard volume and power made in the way this Cavaillé-Coll does it.

It's the rarity of this approach, and this instrument's inclusion on every list of the world's greatest organs convinces me these two things are related. I feel now like I must prioritize getting to see the instrument in peson.

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