Saturday, October 19, 2013

I'll Take Mine Medium Rare

Mendelssohn: Rarities

The Craighead-Saunders organ of Christ Church, Rochester, NY
David Higgs, William Porter, Hans Davidsson, Jonathan Wessler, Thatcher Lyman, Stephen Kennedy, organ; Christ Church Schola Cantorum, Stephen Kennedy, Director

Loft Recordings, LRCD 1119 (2013)

1. Allegro moderato maestoso [March] in C Major, MWV W44 (David Higgs) 2:55
2. Andante con moto in G Minor, MWV W15 (Thatcher Lyman) 1:30
3. Präludium in C Minor, MWV W28 (Thatcher Lyman) 3:39

Sechs Sprüche (Op. 79) (Schola Cantorum)
--4. Spruch #5, Im Advent, MWV B54 1:42
--5. Spruch #1, Weihnachten, MWV B42 1:41
--6. Spruch #2, Am Neujahrstage, MWV B44 3:04
--7. Spruch #4, In der Passionszeit, MWV B50 1:58
--8. Spruch #6, Am Charfreitage, MWV B52 1:44
--9. Spruch #3, Am Himmelfahrstage, MWV B55 1:44

10. Präludium in D Minor, MWV W2 (Jonathan Wessler) 5:38
11. Allegro in B-flat Major, MWV W47 (Stephen Kennedy) 3:00
12. Andante in F Major, MWV W30 (David Higgs) 3:20
13. Andante [with Variations] in D Major, MWV W32 (David Higgs) 5:41

Aus tiefer Noth schrei ich zu dir (Op. 23. No. 1), MWV B20 (Schola Cantorum, David Baskeyfield, organ)
--14. Choral (“Aus tiefer Noth”) 1:12
--15. Fuga (“Aus tiefer Noth”) 4:54
--16. Aria (“Bei dir gilt nichts den Gnad’ und Gunst”) 4:04 (Scott Perkins, tenor)
--17. Choral (“Und ob es währt bis in die Nacht”) 2:47 (Katherine Evans, alto • Robert Strebendt, tenor • Daniel Pickens-Jones, bass)
--18. Choral (“Ob bei uns ist der Sünden viel”) 1:30

19. Nachspiel in D Major, MWV W12 (Hans Davidsson) 5:36
20. Andante in D Major, MWV W6 (William Porter) 3:47
21. Allegro [Choral and Fugue] in D Minor/Major, MWV W33 (William Porter) 8:41

22. Verleih uns Frieden, MWV A11 (Schola Cantorum) 5:26 Pamela McGary, violin I, Manyui Cheung, violin II, Boel Gidholm & Kyle Miller, viola, Rosemary Elliott, violincello I, Colin Stokes, violincello II, Steven Seigart, organ


Not all of these pieces are unknown, but none of them are in regular rotation. Especially with the organ pieces, only the most comprehensive recordings will have all of these, and a couple I've never heard before. This recording has bubbled insistently to the top of my list of favorite acquisitions of the past year. Not for its newness, but for performances that belong on the topmost of top shelves. It's one of those recordings that sticks deep in the musical brain and I find myself thinking about it even when I'm not listening to it. Even six months after I acquired it.

Part of it--much of it--is the organ. The Craighead-Saunders organ in Christ Church of Rochester, NY is part of the Eastman School of Music. Built by GoArt's Munetaka Yokota and named after two of Eastman's most prestigious teachers, David Craighead and Russell Saunders, the instrument is an almost exact copy of a 1776 organ by Adam Gottlob Casparini in Vilnius, Lithuania. The Eastman website hints at a pretty large-scale research process involving some of the greatest organ builders in this country and in Europe over a period of six years that resulted in this organ. It's not a large instrument, 31 stops on two manuals and pedal, but it speaks with tremendous immediacy and intensity, and with its unequal temperament it simply makes delicious sounds. It's one of those very rare instruments where combinations of stops result in something more than the sum of their parts, and the tutti is almost other-worldly.

The organ is really more Bach than Mendelssohn, in that it represents the technology and tonal world of Bach's time. Though the original dates from a couple decades after Bach's death, this instrument is very much along the lines of what Bach would have known. Mendelssohn hails from a century later and the Romantic era of Chopin, but he was one of the first performers to champion Bach in concerts. And among Mendelssohn's varied output he wrote pieces like his Preludes and Fugues (three for Organ, six for Piano) that very much tip their hat to Bach. But I think more interesting than the question of whether the instrument here is appropriate for Mendelssohn (it surely is) is the question of how well it works with this music. And the proof is vibrantly before us here. These are just glorious sounds, period; the fact that they have some authenticity is purely a bonus.

(An aside: I'm reminded, as I've said elsewhere, of E. Power Biggs's recording of the three Hindemith Sonatas in the late '50s on the then-new Flentrop organ at Harvard's Germanic Museum. This was another instrument that very much owed its vision to the instruments of Bach's time, and yet here was Biggs playing a contemporary German-American composer on it to thrilling effect. The lesson there seemed to be that great sounds make for great music, even if the sounds aren't necessarily exactly what the composer had in mind. I've always wondered what César Franck would sound like on that Flentrop--or on this Craighead-Saunders instrument, for that matter. Less-than-authentic, surely, but I'd venture that the result would be quite compelling just the same. Robert Delcamp's 2007 Naxos CD of Widor pieces on the fabulous, tempered Martin Pasi instrument in Omaha gives us a tantalizing glimpse of this mixing of worlds.)

But it's not all the organ. The CD is about half organ and half choral music. And the choir is also a revelation. I can't find much information about the Christ Church Schola Cantorum beyond its being formed in 1997 by director Stephen Kennedy to sing at regular church services. But there is undoubtedly a deep talent pool around one of the country's greatest music schools, and the small choir is miraculous. Their intonation is perfect and they blend like, well, like an organ. I am admittedly extremely fussy about solo voices, and the soloists here seem adequate or better; but the blend of the whole ensemble is among the very best I've heard anywhere. Really first rate.

Two pieces stand out for me. One is the Allegro in d minor (Chorale and Fugue), the second from his unnumbered Three Little Pieces. The review piece from the Gothic website says this is Mendelssohn's longest single movement for organ, and was apparently culled from duty in his Sonatas for that reason. I have several other recordings of the piece, and Director (and here organist) Kennedy just gets more brilliantly inside this intriguing work than anyone else has managed to do. And the d minor key is one to which the organ's unequal temperament is especially congenial. About halfway thru the piece Mendelssohn shifts gears, moving from a Toccata-like opening (via a pedal solo) to a grand chorale statement in D Major on full organ. This leads to a fugal treatment to finish out the piece. That chorale statement is verily the poster child for what an organ is supposed to sound like: grand and glorious and stately and moving--every time I get to this passage I find myself adding a notch or two to the volume knob. As a piece of music it's incredibly satisfying, and as a demonstration of this particular organ it's perfection itself.

The other piece is a little-known cantata for choir and organ and strings called Verleih' uns Frieden. This is another piece that's not entirely unknown, but (as the album title suggests) it's... rare. Unlike Mendelssohn's other cantatas, Verleih' uns Frieden is apparently the composer's own entirely, not having a chorale melody as an underpinning. Lest we think all the good melodies were already taken at this point, Mendelssohn here gives us something that sounds like it wrote itself, a perfect melody like Danny Boy wrapped in a simple setting of absolute perfection. It's so fluid and effortless that it sounds like was formed with the earth and we just discovered it later. I have another recording of the piece, but again this particular combination of organ and choir gives us something greater than the sum of its parts. 

A note about stylistic things. The choir is here accompanied by the organ (organist Steven Seigart) and a sextet of strings--and, apparently, a bassoon, though none is credited. Throughout the whole CD, there is a sense of intimacy and control. No tremolo is used on the organ, and ensemble singing is all done without any vibrato. I have a very strong preference for this treatment, and it contributes to the kind of locked-in sound that temperaments make possible, and which vibrato, especially in ensemble singing, obliterates. But in Verleih' uns Frieden the strings also play without any vibrato. In a piece of Romantic music this is nothing short of a revelation to me! I'm so accustomed to (and continually irked by) contemporary string players' constant waggling vibrato that its absence here is striking. It not only allows players to minutely tune to each other, but it paradoxically makes the ensemble sound tighter and yet make each voice distinctive.

This is a philosophical matter. For the last 100 years, it seems, the use of vibrato is a ubiquitous convention in both singing and string playing; one generally has to get into baroque period performance for strings and even back to Renaissance music with singers (or popular music) to get free of the convention. And I certainly can't make an absolute case for the practice one way or another. I can only say that my ear responds much more readily to vibrato-free tones, and it's a rare circumstance that I feel benefits from more than the sparest use of the device. (I've long thought that my love of harmony, which is primary to my love of music in general, is at the root of this; harmonic precision is impossible without absolutely precise pitch control.) I'm aware that this string treatment will not be to everyone's liking. To those accustomed to contemporary practices, this may sound a bit raw. But I for one will cast my vote for this every time.

Anyway. This is my vote for Album Of The Year. Kudos to all involved for producing something quite special and satisfying.

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