Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Bach: Famous Works on Pedal Harpsichord
Analekta AN2 9970
Preludes and Fugues BWV 535, 541, 545
Passacaglia and Fugue BWV 582
Toccata and Fugue BWV 565
Eight chorale preludes BWV 605, 638, 639, 642, 643, 645, 690, 731
Though we are told that organists in centuries past used pedal harpsichords and pedal clavichords as practice instruments, it has come down to us as more of a novelty instrument or academic exercise than anything mainstream. E. Power Biggs had a pedal harpsichord made for him by American harpsichord builder John Challis in the mid-'60s and made a couple noteworthy recordings on it. For many--certainly for me--this was an introduction to the instrument, and these albums showed off familiar music (two LPs of Bach organ works and one of Joplin rags) in a totally new light.
But as the instrument does not exist in the wild, releases of pedal harpsichord and clavichord recordings after Biggs have been few and far between. Harold Vogel put out an excellent CD of Bach on the pedal clavichord in 1998, and a really splendid pedal harpsichord CD came out a couple years ago (2004) from Frenchman Yves Rechsteiner. And of course there's been the occasional recording of the even rarer pedal piano, a couple of which are reviewed below.
The piano is of course a very different animal from the harpsichord, and even from the clavichord with which it shares its touch-sensitivity. Both harpsichords and clavichords are more private, personal instruments; the clavichord can hardly be heard on the other side of a living room, and a traditional harpsichord--even a big one--is really only suitable for a salon, certainly not a modern concert hall, at least without amplification. This intimacy is one of the things John Challis attempted to remedy by putting a metal frame in his instruments (harpsichord structural bits traditionally being made entirely of wood). This frame was one of the things that rankled purists about Biggs' recordings of it, as it gave the harpsichord a bigger, more sustaining sound. The French piano manufacturer Pleyel had gone even further in the early days of the harpsichord revival, almost duplicating the structure of a modern grand piano in their large concert instruments as favored by Wanda Landowska.
This all leads to a discussion of authenticity and composers' intent and musical purity on which I haven't the expertise to venture forth. For my part, I find I'm more concerned with the sound than the authenticity, and I enjoy the sound of all these instruments. And in truth there are too few recordings for an enthusiast to be very picky.
So the current recording is a most welcome addition to the collection. Montreal-based organ and harpsichord teacher Luc Beausejour plays an instrument that hews much more to the historically accurate than the experimental, a two manual harpsichord and separate pedal instrument from Canadian builder Yves Beaupré. Bach of course translates beautifully to almost any instrumentation, no matter how far afield from that for which it was published (or believed to be intended). One can hear very satisfying Bach on steel drum or recorder ensemble, and pieces written for strings or voice sound great on organ or piano. So whether one is "supposed" to hear Bach on a pedal harpsichord or not, it sounds really fabulous.
To my ear there's a particular approach for Bach that renders his organ music most effectively, and that involves moderate-slow tempi at a mostly straightforward pulse (that is, not too flexible a rhythmic approach) and minimal ornamentation. It is with this approach that I think the genius of Bach's compositional mind shines out most forcefully, like the heat from a glowing ember. Although playing styles have moved on some, E. Power Biggs achieved this glow often, practically laying the printed score in your lap, and I find that Joan Lippincott and George Ritchie both do very well in selling what Bach wrote. (Organists like Wolfgang Rübsam or Jean Guillou or Ton Koopman have brilliant and splendid things to say--and I love their work--but as with many great virtuosos their message is as much their own as the composer's.)
And by this admittedly personal standard, Luc Beausejour's CD here is a real home run. It's a great sounding instrument, and the performances are absolutely spot-on. To my thinking, if you were not familiar with Bach's music this would be one of the best ways to make an introduction. (As an aside, to my mind the d minor Toccata--probably the most famous single piece of organ music for some reason--is a piece that could be retired without too much protest, and Dr. Beausejour here makes the most persuasive case for keeping the piece around. I even listened to it twice in a row.)
The recording is excellent, capturing the little ambient noises that are an intrinsic part of the instrument's mechanism. High marks.
Sunday, June 26, 2011
Cameron Carpenter at the Aeolian-Skinner of St. Mary the Virgin, New York City
Bach: Preludes and Fugues BWV 532, 541, 543, 544, 548; Toccata in F# (transcribed from F) BWV 540; Carpenter: Serenade and Fugue on BACH.
My first exposure to organist Cameron Carpenter came by way of a comment left on this site a couple years ago. In response to my mention of young American organist Chelsea Chen, the commenter suggested I learn about Carpenter who "blows Chelsea Chen out of the water."
Chalk it up to my contrarian nature, perhaps, but this rather worked as an anti-endorsement to me. Quite apart from my rejection of music as a competitive (even gladiatorial!) endeavor, Ms. Chen seems to possess a deep musicality and a technical competence that more than qualify her for entry into the ranks of accomplished musicians; one needn't, I feel, occupy some ultimate place to be worthy of attention and consideration.
But after recently making a more comprehensive introduction to Mr. Carpenter, I begin to see why people might enthuse about him (while in no way ceding ground vis-a-vis my appreciation of Ms. Chen). After my recent and delightful discovery of the fascinating Aeolian-Skinner instrument in New York City's Church of St. Mary the Virgin, I was even more thrilled to learn there had been a recent recording of the instrument.
Enter Cameron Carpenter.
Mr. Carpenter's website and the information available on the web (including some reviews of his playing) do indeed paint him as a major artist, a phenom even. A graduate of the Julliard School, Mr. Carpenter studied with Gerre Hancock, John Weaver and Paul Jacobs and is brilliantly talented quite beyond question.
He is also controversial, to a degree inherently and to a degree by design. His musical vision is unique and his enthusiasm and élan are irrepressible, but he's bringing sequined costumes to places where sequins don't get much play. And this is not to everyone's liking: just take a look at the comments about his playing on iTunes. People seem to love him or hate him; there's little in-between.
For this recording--Mr. Carpenter's second with the major label Telarc--he is at the aforementioned Aeolian-Skinner organ at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin just off Times Square. I've said plenty about that instrument here, so let's just concentrate on Mr. Carpenter. His program is Bach--five of the Great Preludes and Fugues, the Toccata in F Major BWV 540 (transcribed here to F#)--and three pieces by Mr. Carpenter himself (one an improvised cadenza to BWV 541).
Mr. Carpenter's playing reminds me very much of the late (and incomparable) Vladimir Horowitz. Any given piece Horowitz performed was likely to be as much Horowitz as the piece's composer, either by some degree of creative license or, more typically, by the simple force of Horowitz's mind, by the singularity of the artist's interpretation (Glenn Gould strikes me in the same way). Carpenter is like this. His Bach is quite a distance from what has come to be accepted as "authentic performance," and yet he is never disrespectful and never less than fully, coherently musical. On the contrary, his musical vision seems almost more than the vessel of an existing composition can contain. Like the Well-Tempered Clavier played on a modern Steinway, Carpenter tailors his interpretations to take advantage of the full resources of a modern pipe organ--I have never seen anyone so lavishly fluent in the dense mechanical controls of a large organ console. (And he's not afraid to play on his instrument his favorite music of any genre or background--much, I'm reminded, like the popular piano recitals of a century ago.)
But it must be said that the organ has more than its share of traditionalists, both in performers and in enthusiasts, and Mr. Carpenter's iconoclastic approach is simply not going to be everyone's cup of tea (though to be very worked up over it seems silly to me). He never seems shocking for its own sake, but neither does he seem willing to tread lightly when his heart tells him something else. He is an irrepressible showman, loving any publicity and revealing a lavish (some might say lurid) presence. It's talent and exuberance that verges on precocity--and at times perhaps spilling over into excess. His transcription of Chopin's "Revolutionary" Etude (from which his Grammy-nominated first Telarc album takes its name) has his feet doing things that I daresay few organists could do, and on this album his transcription of Bach's F Major Toccata up half a step to F# seems a bit show-offy, like he had a wager with friends and was doing the deed extemporaneously.
But I cannot sustain these misgivings; Cameron Carpenter is a lavish, larger-than-life musical presence in a world that will not suffer for the injection of some new blood, frankly. I love that Mr. Carpenter for a few years held down a regular church post despite being "not religious," and that he is a strong advocate of the virtual pipe organ--an all-electronic version of the instrument. Neither of these things is likely to sit at all well with the traditionalist, but the traditional pipe organ, traditionally-played, seems in fairly secure hands at the moment. Music is a big house and there is plenty of room for those whose wide-ranging enthusiasms cannot be contained.
And from his skin-tight, Siegfried-and-Roy costumes and hand-sequined shoes, one might conclude that if we don't make space for Mr. Carpenter he could very easily construct his own space without our invitation. For my part, much as I love the stuffy and traditional in this field, I welcome him with open arms.
Sunday, June 12, 2011
I've had amazing luck with organ matters. On my first visit to Paris, I stumbled upon several amazing things, culminating with my being invited to the organ loft at St. Sulpice to observe Sophie-Veronique Cauchefer-Choplin improvising through a service. I was similarly lucky on Susan's and my visit to Paris a decade later.
In New York last year as Susan and I walked back to our hotel we passed the open doors of a church near Times Square (The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin on 46th St. between Sixth and Seventh) and I heard the unmistakable sounds of Duruflé. I dashed across the street to hear the final minute or so of the Op. 4 Veni Creator Variations. I didn't go inside at that time--it was the postlude and everyone was leaving the building--but I thought the instrument sounded very congenial for French repertoire and made a mental note to investigate the building and its organ.
It only took the passage of another year and another reminder. This past week we were back in Manhattan leading our yearly tour, and I was out wandering on a free evening. And I passed the same church again and--lo and behold--this time I heard Mendelssohn coming out the open doors. (It almost seemed like a sign!) This time I went in. It turns out a visiting organist from Washington, D.C., one Julie Vidrick Evans, was practicing for a concert to be played the next day (alas, we would be headed back to WI by then), so I stuck around for a couple hours and listened--two different Mendelssohn movements and Dupré's Op. 7 Prelude and Fugue in B Major. Ms. Evans was very accomplished, and her practicing was not to master the pieces but rather the instrument--she was trying out registrations and setting pistons, trying to make the best use of the instrument's many resources. For a listener wanting to learn about a specific organ, this is maybe better than listening to the recital itself; one can hear different stops in quick succession and see how they interact.
The organ turns out to be something considerably more than just a random instrument on a random street in a random church--I'm a little surprised I hadn't heard of it before now. In the church's dark interior it was hard to get a very clear look at the instrument. And after my eyes adjusted I was surprised at what I saw: an instrument that looked half-finished and then left that way for several decades. I thought at first it might be an early Holtkamp; the pipework was entirely exposed. But the layout of the pipes and their dull metallic composition convinced me the instrument was not intended to look this way. I really had never seen anything like it.
More astonishing than what it looked like was what it actually IS: I did some searching on my iPhone as I sat there and my jaw dropped to learn that the instrument came not from Cleveland but from the workshops of Aeolian-Skinner in 1932 as its Opus 891 (extended a decade later to become Op. 891-A). Consulting my biography of Ernest M. Skinner back at home, I learned that Op. 891-A was notorious as the first example of what became known as the "American Classic" style, a style which moved away from the blatant orchestral imitation for which the Skinner firm was known and toward a more historically-informed tonal design. Ernest M. Skinner was still at the helm of the firm which bore his name, but Op. 891-A was a product of the man who was leading what amounted to a hostile takeover of Skinner's firm, the Englishman G. Donald Harrison. Op. 891-A was a modern and innovative organ in its day--innovation of which Ernest M. Skinner rather strongly disapproved--and the instrument marked a decisive turn of the firm away from its founder.
(I love that despite the arguments about arcane details, any well-designed and -executed organ sounds lovely and of a piece in its setting. Skinner's instruments--say, the masterpiece in Woolsey Hall at Yale University--seem noteworthy now not for their ability to imitate a symphony orchestra, but for their tonal innovations and masterful construction and for the coherence of their designer's tonal vision. Harrison's Op. 891-A is not, as it happens, an instrument Skinner wanted his firm to build, but it strikes us as a unified and glorious instrument in its space--and, with more than a little irony, it still sounds very much like the kind of big, orchestral organ that was in vogue 80 years ago when compared to the extremes to which the historical movement went in the ensuing half century).
In fact the instrument sounds fantastic in the middling-reverberation space, and the sounds are very congenial indeed for French repertoire. It's a large instrument (93 stops on four manuals and pedal) and it fills the space very ably--the tutti is almost painful. The space itself is reverberant enough to help the organ blend, yet intimate enough to hear details and to appreciate the instrument's full dynamic range. The stoplist I saw on some church literature did not mention any 32' flue pipes on the organ, but there is a big reed on the pedal which is quite overwhelming; it was fun to hear the practicing recitalist try passages with and without the Bombarde. (The AGO site shows two 32' flues: a Salicional and a Bourdon.)
(The console, typical of Skinners of the day. This console layout is one of the enduring legacies of Ernest M. Skinner.)
Overall the sound seemed a touch lighter than with other Skinners with which I'm familiar. I'm used to an Aeolian-Skinner featuring huge scales and a very wide-open tone, and this instrument struck me as being a bit slighter in its tonal composition. (Not that anyone would call this instrument "slight." I'd be curious to know if there's anything in this or if it was just a quirk of my ear on this day.)
And so a fun discovery: my research shows the instrument to be rather famous, and one of the new breed of virtuoso organists, one Cameron Carpenter, has recorded a live recital on just the instrument. (It's downloading as I type this, and perhaps I'll have two cents' worth about it later.)
Lastly, a word on the instrument's facade. I spoke the following morning to the church's organist, a young Englishman named James Kennerly, and he had a few details about the instrument's history (plus there's a great rundown of the instrument's history on the New York AGO website here, including sketches of what the intended facade was to look like). It seems no one ever intended the instrument to look as it does, but budgets were tight and what money was available was always prioritized into completing the intended specification; when the money was finally found, the instrument's looks had become something of a trademark and it was decided to leave well enough alone.
With a mechanical-action instrument, the arrangement of pipes follows the mechanics of the windchests, which route wind more or less uniformly to the individual ranks, lined up by keyboard position (though it must be said that facade pipes will often be arranged separately for aesthetic purposes, and even dummy pipes used to achieve a desired look). With an electric or electro-pneumatic action like this A-S, pipes can be put anywhere wind can be routed to them, and so it's interesting to see how an instrument is laid out--which pipes are under expression and which not. This particular organ is most unusual in having all this exposed to the audience. Walter Holtkamp's experiments with completely exposed pipework were rather controversial in their day, though a number of firms have built at least the occasional instrument with this feature. But to my knowledge Aeolian-Skinner was not one of them. And that makes it even more special and rare.
Another great entry for my organ serendipity ledger!
Sunday, April 17, 2011
Beethoven: Op. 120 Diabelli Variations, etc.
Gerard Willems at the Stuart & Sons piano
ABC Classics 476 4113
I find I'm not quite done with piano technical matters.
After my recent brief survey of recordings of unusual pianos, I spent some time surfing the web exploring boutique piano manufacturers. They're not so rare as I expected. On reflection, there is little excuse for my being surprised to find artisans hand-building grand pianos; in my defense (as I've said elsewhere) I'm simply used to pianos as the output of mass-production--big, heavy products of big industrial concerns, the products of steam-driven factories that once dotted our landscape. Teams of engineers and designers worked in concert (sorry) to finalize a specification, which was then translated into industrial processes which in turn produced countless examples of each model, all conforming to the original specification to within specified tolerances. The industrial revolution in a nutshell.
But of course a piano exists as an implement for an artistic endeavor, and at the pointy end of the spectrum musical instruments have always been made with exquisite care and attention to detail. That they once were ONLY made this way doesn't mean that NONE are now made this way. A Steinway D is still made in the old factory, but the instrument is surely gone over individually in excruciating detail to bring each variance to perfect compliance.
But the smaller the builder the less mass-produced the process must seem. David Rubenstein's R-371, a 12-foot concert grand, is hand made in his workshop in California. The materials may be similar to those used in a production-line Steinway D, but everything here must be crafted and fitted by hand. And so it must be for all these boutique builders. Pictures on his website show Luigi Borgato's Italian factory to be a pre-industrial space, more an artisan's workshop than, say, a place where BMWs are built.
Some really exquisite things come from these places. Another discovery I made is the piano builder and researcher Wayne Stuart, proprietor of Stuart & Sons Pianos out of Newcastle, Australia. Formed in 2001, Stuart & Sons have concentrated on careful research and design evolution of the modern grand piano. The firm have produced something North of 50 large instruments. I searched in vain for a showroom on my recent visit to Sydney, but alas the instruments are only officially on display in the firm's Newcastle factory. But the website mentions that Sydney's Powerhouse Museum owns one of the instruments, so I headed over there to have a look at it. (It was part of a museum display of musical instruments, so unfortunately I was neither able to photograph nor to play the magnificent instrument.)
Among other things, Wayne Stuart has concentrated on increasing the instrument's clarity and sustain, and the results are subtle but meaningful. The instrument features an increased range--four notes on the bottom and almost an octave on top--which is not subtle, of course, though there is little existing music (classical anyway) that will allow for use of these notes; but the harmonic development of the instrument's tone is enhanced by the increased scale. And Stuart's work on improved sustain and clarity is quite noticeable. In concentrating minutely on controlling how the piano's individual strings vibrate, Stuart has been able to increase the sonic purity of the notes, with the result that the upper registers speak with an unexpected brilliance and distinctness, not getting lost in a plink of harmonic artifacts; and the lower registers maintain their fundamental focus considerably further down the scale, the individual tones not disappearing in a mass of muddy sound. The result is subtle but noticeable. (The pianist Bill Risby demonstrates these features on the website.)
Because the concern is so small, there are almost no recordings of the instruments available (it seems the company does not sponsor artists as many other manufacturers do, so recordings are only going to be made by otherwise unaffiliated artists who chose the instrument. One of these is the Dutch-born Australian classical pianist Gerard Willems, who has now recorded an entire cycle of Beethoven on the Stuart & Sons piano. I was able to find his most recent release on iTunes, a 2010 recording of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. It's an excellent recording, giving one a front-row seat for demonstration of this most fascinating instrument in a most demanding repertoire. I'm not previously familiar with the Diabelli Variations (not being especially taken with Beethoven), but the piano's full dymanic and tonal resources are put to vigorous use here. Willems seems a perfect advocate of this repertoire, highly accomplished technically and full of fire; he plays the piece almost like an improvisation.
The website features several other musicians demonstrating the Stuart & Sons instrument, including some Bach, and one hopes for additional recordings--since I'm unlikely to ever spend much time with the real instrument. Maybe if I win the lottery (most unlikely if I refuse to buy a ticket...)
Friday, February 18, 2011
Robert Schumann: Works for the Pedal Piano
ARS 38 011 (2006)
In all this piano discussion, I wrote to a friend this past week expressing my surprise that piano tone across a broad spectrum of builders (and across a broad spectrum of instrument prices) was remarkably uniform. His response, very sensibly, is that--apart from the organ--what other established classical instrument enables you to determine its manufacturer by sound alone? (And even in the case of the organ this is very tenuous.) All instruments--violin, flute, oboe, saxophone, xylophone, guitar--have evolved to occupy a particular point in sonic space, and for the most part instrument builders attempt to conform to the sonic standard.
But I maintain that my question is not altogether nonsensical. If, for example, an extraordinary 12' piano sounds indistinguishable from a standard 9' concert grand, what is the impetus to build it? In all instruments we must have an interior sense of the sonic ideal from which contemporary instruments fall short; otherwise, who would bother to be an instrument builder at all?
After falling in love with Schumann's works for pedal piano in Marco Bruson's recording on the remarkable Doppio Borgato, I went in search for other similar things, and ran across this complete survey of Schumann's pedal piano works by Martin Schmeding, Professor of Organ and Church Music at the Freiburg Hochschule for Music. In addition to the Op. 56 Etudes and the Op. 58 Scenes recorded by Bruson, Professor Schmeding also includes the six Op. 60 Fugues on BACH (pieces, again, familiar to most lovers of organ music).
Professor Schmeding is superb here and his survey of these works has the ring of authority. He captures the little fleeting moods of these pieces wonderfully, giving us a sense of what must have seemed amazingly fresh and alive in Schumann's time.
But I again find the instrument itself upstages. Professor Schmeding adds to the sense of authenticity here by playing a Pleyel grand piano from about 1840 (similar to Chopin's final instrument), mated to a Pleyel pedal instrument from c. 1890. So like the Doppio Borgato this Pleyel instrument is two separate entities, a grand piano sitting atop a distinct instrument for the feet.
This Pleyel instrument gives the lie to my contention that piano tone is eternally set, reminding us that the piano is still, in the grand scheme of things, a fairly recent phenomenon (something easy to lose sight of when electronics have overwhelmed the music world in the past three decades). 1840 is not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, but this Pleyel instrument, while still unquestionably a piano, sounds almost as much like a pianoforte of Mozart or Haydn's time as it does a modern Steinway. (And when we look at the Pleyel compared to my own 75-year old Chickering, which DOES sound much like a modern Steinway, we realize that this change occurred in the short 90-plus years between 1840 and 1934.)
As is typical with iTunes, there is but a single cover photo and no supporting text, but even from that photo one can see some obvious differences between the Pleyel and a modern concert grand. The scale is obviously smaller and slighter, with the instrument being roughly 7' in length and not nearly as heavily-built as a modern grand. The Pleyel is straight-strung (with no harmonic-enhancing cross-stringing of the bottom two octaves across the strings of the rest of the instrument). A metal frame is visible in the Pleyel, but it's a considerably slighter affair than that of a modern grand.
The result of these technical things is an instrument with notably less power and sustain than a modern grand piano, especially when played aggressively. Even a modern piano is distinguished by having a strong attack followed by a reduced sustain and a decay that gets shorter and shorter as the notes rise in the upper register. The Pleyel seems to exaggerate each of these characteristics, being more attack and less sustain than we're used to. And none of the notes here sustains like a modern grand. In all, it's just a more intimate, less grand sound than a modern instrument.
It's hard to discern much detail about the pedal instrument from the photos. It does not appear to extend its strings beneath the piano in the manner of the Doppio Borgato, but rather has everything contained in a square box centered beneath the player's bench and the piano keyboard. This leaves little space for strings of any length, and not surprisingly the Pleyel's pedal tones have a fraction of the Borgato's power and sustain. My sense is that this pedal instrument was intended as a practice device for organists rather than as a concert instrument (as the Doppio Borgato obviously is).
Even if my ear has its preference, there doesn't need to be a value judgment in this: it's simply what was done at the time the Pleyel was built, and the instrument's tone is remarkable in its own way. But it's a reminder that the "ideal" of piano tone was as yet not determined, or certainly not yet realized when the Pleyel was built. This is the state of the art of the time, but that boundary was still in motion. The instrument is certainly capable of a singing tone, particularly in quieter passages, but the room for improvement was evident to all and the improvements came.
What's interesting to me is where we might go from here.
As for this recording, I give it top marks. A good clean, quiet recording of a fascinating instrument with brilliant content. A solid home run.
Thursday, February 10, 2011
Doppio Borgato particularly, makes for the most exciting addition to my music collection in a long time. I can hardly conceive of a more fascinating endeavor than to build and perfect an instrument like this one, and I would love to hear the whole of the organ literature recorded on it. Here's hoping for much more.
Mirco Bruson Plays the Doppio Borgato Pedal Piano
Music of Schumann, Beethoven, Franck and Bach
Luigi Borgato, 2011
Here's another recording that springboards us into a discussion about technical matters. As mentioned in the previous post, my exploration of some of the more obscure corners of the piano industry has yielded several great finds. This is perhaps the most exciting.
Luigi Borgato is an Italian piano maker who, in addition to having made some innovations to the standard concert grand piano design, offers a production pedal piano, which he calls the Doppio Borgato (Double Borgato). He didn't invent the pedal piano concept (I've seen pictures of several improvised ones) but the Doppio Borgato is the only commercially-available pedal piano I've ever heard of. Of course it's a natural idea, following on from the pedal harpsichords which were known in Bach's day and which organists used as practice instruments. But it's an idea which also brings challenges. Neither the organ nor the harpsichord require a nuanced touch for any kind of dynamic control, while this expressive mechanism is the piano's whole raison d'etre. To require the feet to do something more delicate than a simple on / off is surely an additional complication for the player.
Wikipedia shows a couple historic versions of the pedal piano, most of which involve linkages from the pedals to their corresponding piano keys above. The other method is to build a separate instrument for the feet and stack the two one atop the other. The Doppio Borgato is of this latter type, with a standard concert grand piano sitting atop a second, dedicated 37-note piano for the feet. The "standard" piano is Borgato's L-282, an exquisite 9' grand of the regular 88 note compass. The single front leg has been moved slightly to accommodate the pedal instrument below, but it appears otherwise to follow the established pattern of concert grand pianos. I thought it ungainly-looking at first, but I'm changing my mind. It's certainly less elegant than the basic concert grand, but there's a mass and seriousness about the two instruments together that look to mean business. They certainly look to mean money: the Doppio Borgato is a whopping €260,750 complete.
Over the years I've wondered about what qualities would seem to be needed to make a pedal piano work, and a big question is whether one would want the feet to produce sound which differs in any particular from the hands, or if the two should be seamless. Of course, if the feet simply activate the corresponding notes of the piano above, the sound would only be distinguished by differences in quality of touch or phrasing. (With an organ the artist is easily able to choose between both options: use the same pipes as the hands or use a different registration). Most pedal harpsichords I've heard give the pedal instrument a bit of extra gravitas, which seems suitable. Maestro Borgato seems to have straddled this line very subtly. The pedal instrument of the Doppio Borgato played gently sounds indistinguishable from the keyboard above; but played with a bit more aggression the pedals acquire a hard, brassy quality that sounds powerful and very effectively underpins the instrument above. It's exactly the right balance, I think, but it doesn't minimize the challenge of getting the "touch" of the feet right; this change in timbre from piano to forte makes a careless movement of the feet more noticeable than it might otherwise be. Further, the pedals seem to have a very small range of motion--not unlike the inch or so that the piano keys move--and I wonder if that limited motion makes it more difficult to gauge the intensity of one's touch when using the feet? (I'd love to learn more about the technical aspects of the instrument; is the action different from the L-282 above? Are the strings and tensions in the pedal instrument the same as the L-282? And if anything differs, how was that difference arrived at?)
I'm surprised at how much music (that is, any at all) has been written for the pedal piano considering it's an instrument that basically does not exist in the wild. And to this repertoire can be added almost anything written for the organ--a huge body of music. The Italian pianist Mirco Bruson is entrusted with introducing the Doppio Borgato to us on this recording, and he has chosen superbly. Schumann wrote several cycles of pieces specifically for the pedal piano (they are always performed on the organ), and Bruson here gives us the Op. 56 Etudes and the Op. 58 Scenes. There is also a piece by Beethoven, Cesar Franck's Prelude, Fugue et Variation, and from Bach three chorale preludes and the famous c minor Passacaglia and Fugue BWV 582. All these show the instrument off most flatteringly. I've always enjoyed the Schumann pieces, particularly the Op. 56 Etudes but they've never sounded so good as they do on this instrument. They're not as densely contrapuntal as, say, Bach's Trio Sonatas, but the canonic interplay of voices here is wonderfully inventive and Schumann's melodies are lovely.
Bruson's performance is letter-perfect. My earlier-stated concerns about the difficulty of judging one's touch with the pedal instrument stem at least partly from my having seen video of the great French organist Jean Guillou playing his own Doppio Borgato where some of Bach's more athletic pedal passages sound a bit uneven. I'm quite aware of Guillou's rare brilliance as an organist, which only reinforces the notion that playing this pedal instrument may not be a walk in the park. Mirco Bruson's recording here does not hint at any such issues, and the disc brilliantly demonstrates this interplay of tones between hands and feet. (As an aside, Jean Guillou made a recording in 2002 on Phillips of the Doppio Borgato which is unavailable in the US. I'm shocked at how absolutely it's unavailable--a Google search comes up with very little and even a search of Decca's own website turns up not a trace. I've managed to track it down on a European site, but the protection against an American getting his hands on the recording is remarkably effective--for what purpose I cannot imagine. I feel I must make it a mission to get my hands on that CD, and will try again next time I'm out of the country.)
Favorite French Piano Works
My love of the organ is closely seconded by affection for the piano. I suppose it's because I always had a piano in the house and developed a taste for its sounds early on. I've had an old Chickering 9' concert grand for about 25 years now, carting it laboriously from place to place, always having to choose houses based on what will accommodate it.
As with the organ, I'm very interested in the piano as a machine and in its history and construction. In addition to listening to a lot of piano music, I love visiting new piano showrooms and also the mom-and-pop piano rebuilding shops I've found in each place I've lived. From all of this I have a sense of the piano as a product historically of large industrial concerns--Steinway, Yamaha, Bösendorfer. These are big, expensive products crafted and assembled by armies of workers of many job descriptions and skills. I've always been aware of smaller specialty piano makers, but even firms like Fazioli and Bechstein are, I imagined, pretty large concerns, shipping 3/4 ton, highly finished instruments all over the world.
Clicking through YouTube videos a couple days ago (yet again--how much of my musical life is now being driven by YouTube?), I ran across a video of Messiaen played on the world's largest piano in which Aaron McClasky plays the short Prelude "The Dove" on an instrument by the California piano maker David Rubenstein. I'd never heard of him (Rubenstein or McClasky), but I was immediately intrigued, not simply by the piano's massive size--12'2" and 2,500 lbs!--but by the idea that an individual would undertake to design and build an instrument of this size and caliber in (presumably) a small workshop. This was like a thunderbolt to me; it counters every intuition I have about where pianos come from.
While searching for Mr. Rubenstein's website, I quickly came to realize that there is a cottage industry of small, boutique piano makers. I'll come back to that. But after poking around his website--and buying this recording of his instrument--I decided to send him off a little note of introduction expressing an interest in seeing his operation at some point (his shop is located in El Segundo, just South of LAX; an easy drive from our hub in Ontario, CA). He very graciously wrote me back and extended his hospitality whenever I next make it to town, so this has become high on my to-do list.
His signature piano, the R-371, is not the only instrument he makes. There is also the more nearly normal R-244, which sports an eight foot length and a standard 88 keys. The R-371 has 97 keys, extending the piano's normal compass down to CCC. Both pianos are otherwise made of the same materials and with the same methods. I have no idea how many, if any, of either model Mr. Rubenstein has made or sold.
The piano builder David Rubenstein has paired up with the improbably-named pianist David Rubinstein for a CD of the R-371, an album of French compositions which show off the instrument's dynamic and tonal palette: The Meditation from Thaïs of Massenet, Satie's Three Gymnopedie, Debussy's Children's Corner, three Mouvements perpetuel of Francis Poulenc and the Sonatine and Les Vallée des cloches of Ravel. Just my kind of stuff.
The first thing I notice is that the sonic differences between pianos from different manufacturers (to say nothing of between instruments from a single builder) are very subtle indeed. "Proper" piano tone is well-established and codified. There's a right and wrong way for a piano to sound. Given the massive existing repertoire for the piano--in all genres--I don't know why I was expecting a singular instrument like the R-371 to sound in any way different from every concert grand piano I had heard before, but this expectation went unrealized. Perhaps more time and careful listening is required; if I concentrate I can hear an impressive sustain from the R-371, and the lowest octave is spectacular as one might expect from strings a good three feet longer than the industry standard. But it sounds like a concert grand piano in all the best senses.
As for this recording, pianist David Rubinstein is excellent. He is very much at home in this repertoire, and he demonstrates the bottom 2/3 of the instrument's dynamic range ably--though a full assessment of the R-371's qualities will need some Beethoven or Prokofiev or Reger to judge. The sound on the disc is excellent apart from a couple climactic moments--just a couple individual notes, really, which sound a touch saturated to me (and it may just be a bad iTunes transfer). Regardless, it's nothing to detract from a very enjoyable listening experience and a wonderful introduction to the musical oddity that is the R-371.
This exploration of what is to me new territory yielded a few other delicious finds, including a brilliant instrument from the Australian firm Stuart and Sons, and also a magnificent pedal piano from the Italian builder Luigi Borgato. We'll cover this latter instrument in a separate post.
Saturday, February 5, 2011
Salve Regina: Works of Yves Castagnet, Olivier Latry and Francis Poulenc
Maitrise Notre-Dame de Paris
There is no worse-kept secret here than my infatuation with the music of Maurice Duruflé and my broader love for the compositional school surrounding the great churches of Paris and the Paris Conservatoire from the 1850s or so up to the present day--indeed, I daresay I've belabored the point. But it's the very center point of my musical interest, and I've lived immersed in this music for a couple decades now and I seem never to tire of it.
I say the school continues to the present day, but the bulk of its glory is naturally enough shining at us from the past: César Franck, Charles-Marie Widor, Louis Vierne, Marcel Dupré, Maurice Duruflé, etc., etc. Probably the most famous flag-bearer of this school in recent years has been Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), and many music listeners have heard of Franck and perhaps Duruflé from his Requiem of 1948. But the rest, including the many active participants today, are likely to be unfamiliar to most folks.
Even I am a little surprised that the modern world has not overrun the school (not merely the school in the sense of the Conservatoire de Paris, where many of these composers studied and taught, but in this larger sense of practitioners of a particular musical aesthetic; I'm surprised the aesthetic continues). But continue it does, full steam ahead. On the couple visits I've made to Paris, I've been most fortunate to stumble upon--literally--noteworthy people doing noteworthy things, which had the effect of making me feel like the stream of a vibrant, if arcane, history was rushing onward and I was lucky enough to be able to step briefly into it.
Wading through YouTube videos a few weeks back (it's stunning how much stuff is on YouTube), I ran across an audio-and-still-photo video of a movement from a mass by the Notre Dame choir organist Yves Castagnet, the Sanctus. I'm aware of Mr. Castagnet from a recording or two (plus a performance I attended in Paris in 1998)--he is a former first prize winner for organ performance from the Conservatoire de Paris and is as accomplished as his comrades at Notre Dame, even if he leads a quieter public existence.
What I was not aware of before now was that Mr. Castagnet is a composer. This shouldn't be a surprise, but modern compositions from the present batch of Parisian organists seem fairly rare. Notre Dame's most famous organist, Olivier Latry, is a devoted improviser, as are his co-titulars at Notre Dame, Phillippe Lefebvre and Jean-Pierre Leguay (their compositions, if there are any, are not numerous or widely-played). So too with the organ loft of St. Sulpice. Daniel Roth has a couple compositions, but mostly he and his second, Sophie-Veronique Cauchefer-Choplin, are famous for their improvisational arts. I'm thrilled that on my visits to Paris I've been able to hear improvisations by Vincent Warnier and Jean Guillou and Phillippe Lefebvre and Ms. Cauchefer-Choplin; but the end result of this experience has been to convince me that the movement is now almost entirely about improvisation.
So this discovery of a composed mass by Yves Castagnet was to me a real find. And it was doubly thrilling to find it to be an engaging piece, energetic and confident and absolutely steeped in this aesthetic world. Written in an ABA form, the Sanctus takes the form of a typical French organ toccata with a vocal overlay. It's written in a virtuoso sextuple meter with thunderous bass octaves underpinning the soaring choral lines. I robbed the audio track from the video and promptly wore a hole in my hard drive listening again and again.
But the Messe had other movements which were nowhere to be found. I decided I had to locate the rest of it. The person posting the video said the track came from a CD obtained from the Notre Dame gift shop which contained the entire mass, plus a published work by Olivier Latry--another first for me!--and some Poulenc. I found the website for the cathedral's gift shop, but I was unable to discern which of the available CDs was the one in question--nor could I determine whether they would ship overseas. After a bit more poking, I found the CD label--Hortus--and was able to go to their website for more information. I spent another hour trying to find an online music seller who would have the CD available for MP3 download, but alas there were none; the disc was just a bit too obscure. But Hortus themselves would happily ship the CD (and another I found of Vierne and a mass by Jean-Pierre Leguay) to the US of A, and after a month or so I was in business.
A few observations: First, I don't remember any French vocal group sounding nearly so good as the Maitrise Notre Dame de Paris do on this and two other recent CD acquisitions. I don't know to whom to attribute the improvement, but the pitch and blend and precision, the dynamic control, and the quality of the soloists are all absolutely top shelf here. Second, the massive acoustic of Notre Dame, plus the thundering grand orgue (which sits nearly a city block distant from the singers) combine to make a really magical and singular sonic environment for music. The present disc is recorded close to the choir so that the organ's immense power, while still palpable, is kept at bay just a bit. This enables some of the organ's more aggressive timbres--especially the big pedal reeds--to be used to great effect without drowning out the choir (as I suspect would occur if the choir joined the organist up in the organ loft.
All three pieces on the CD use the Salve Regina chant as basic thematic material. Castagnet's Messe "Salve Regina" is the centerpiece. Written for mixed chorus and two organs, it contains four movements with interspersed plainchant sung by female voices only. For this performance, Olivier Latry mans the grand organ console and composer Castagnet takes his regular place at the choir organ. The work is mostly quiet and contemplative with the Salve Regina chant making regular appearances. The quiet is punctuated with occasional outbursts from the organ, especially the powerful close of the second-movement Gloria and the whole of the now-familiar third movement, the Sanctus. In the Sanctus, the grand organ part is given all the technical fireworks, and the quieter, more intimate choir organ given the very Duruflé-like central section. In fact, the whole work sounds very reminiscent of Duruflé's Op. 9 Requiem or his Op. 10 Quatre motets, a mixture of ancient melodies and modern, yet still tonal, harmonies (indeed, I found a British review of the CD in question which referred to the piece as "post-Duruflé," which gets right to the heart of it, I think). The piece is unmistakeably French, the tonality sounding very much like Ravel and Debussy and, yes, Duruflé.
Latry's Salve Regina for Organ and Voice is based on an improvisation he did, I believe, during an American concert tour. It intersperses the solo singing of chants with organ sketches of varying characters based on the Salve Regina phrases just sung. It is the only composed work of Latry's of which I've heard, and it naturally has very much the character of his improvisations. He is very inventive in his use of timbre at the grand orgue, and the effect is similar to the Castagnet work in its tenor and tonality. All these pieces are essentially tonal, but are unafraid to use spice as needed. The musicians are superb throughout, and the recording first rate. (One wonders what another recording of the work would sound like without this acoustic and that instrument.)
Duruflé himself gave us a very limited number of composed works. One is grateful for the wondrous pieces we have, pieces of absolute perfection and haunting beauty, but one naturally pines for more. I have no idea how many compositions Mr. Castagnet has in him, but on the strength of this work I will be continually on the lookout for anything new coming from his pen.
Highest recommendation for the organ lover.
Monday, January 25, 2010
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.
Saturday, January 23, 2010
Olivier Latry is the titular organist of Notre Dame in Paris, arguably the single most prestigious organ post in the world. In addition to these duties, he also is professor of organ at the Conservatoire du Paris and is in great demand as a concert artist. Still a young man--he was appointed to the Conservatoire post at age 21 and his Notre Dame post at 23--he is living proof that the incredible legacy of Franck and Widor and Vierne and Dupré and Duruflé and Cochereau is alive and well. (In this he is joined by Philippe Lefebvre and Daniel Roth and Sophie-Veronique Cauchefer-Choplin and Vincent Warnier and Thierry Escaich and Jean Guillou and Yves Castagnet and Francois-Henri Houbart and others.)
This video treats us, courtesy of JAV Records, to Mr. Latry improvising at the console in October, 2007. Improvisation is a big part of the tradition of being an organist in France, and in this video we hear the fabulous harmonic language which is such a big part of the legacy of this school (and the related aesthetics of Debussy and Ravel).
I also love how utterly adept he is at manipulating what is a very large and complicated instrument. (I wonder what it must be like to be this good at anything in life.)
(An aside: this is not Cavaillé-Coll's original console, and my understanding is that the new console is computer-controlled and allows any stop on the organ to be played from any keyboard. So though Latry doesn't use but two or three keyboards here, he is likely making use of more of the organ's resources than it appears.)
Friday, December 25, 2009
The Great Contest: Bach, Scarlatti, and Handel
David Yearsley plays the Op. 85 Fisk organ (1984) at Memorial Church, Stanford University
Loft Records LRCD-1028; 2002
This is an intriguing concept: a CD that mimics the dream concert of the 18th Century, a meeting between Domenico Scarlatti, George Frideric Handel and J.S. Bach. All were born in 1685 and died in the 1750s, and the three together represented the state of musical and keyboard arts of the day (by any objective measure, the year 1685 must count as one of music history's most momentous). Scarlatti and Handel did meet, I believe, and held a kind of contest; as I recall, the "decision" was said to go to Handel for the organ and Scarlatti for the keyboard. Very judicious. But neither man ever met Bach in person. This CD gives us a taste of what such a meeting might have sounded like. Or at least it stacks their compositions up side-by-side, even if we can't know how each man's performances might have illuminated his own works.
Scarlatti's sonatas are not often heard on organ, being conceived mostly for the harpsichord (though pianists often play them). They don't suffer at the organ, certainly, though the instrument puts Mr. Scarlatti at a bit of a disadvantage since this is not how we expect to hear his works. And it rather makes inevitable a direct comparison with Handel and Bach, both of whose works are much more commonly heard on the organ. But none of these three composers is painting with the same brush as the others, and hearing Scarlatti on the organ sandwiched by the other two kind of shines the wrong type of light on him.
And in this setting the great Handel sounds rather like a transitional figure toward the Next Big Thing. A bit more expansive, perhaps, than Mr. Scarlatti, and with his toe dipping in the galant. Handel has a wonderful fluidity, a pastoral beauty which is so often heard in his string writing. It's just a different aesthetic than Bach and Scarlatti.
But Bach is the party crasher here. That at any rate is how this little experiment sounds to me: Scarlatti and Handel give us delightful and engaging music, and Bach makes everyone else sound almost like a warmup act. To my ear he just overshadows everybody with his singular and towering musical genius. Part of it is a question of complexity, I guess. Handel's sounds are sparser--less dense, less wrought with detail--and Scarlatti seems at home with the small, finite statement. He is remarkably inventive--over 550 keyboard sonatas!--but it all exists within a very narrow sphere. But in Bach we find something altogether more expansive and beyond easy categorizing. His Duetto No. 1 BWV 802 from the Clavierübung III (an uncharacteristically spare piece for Bach) sounds like it might have come from Scarlatti's pen, but by the time we get a chorale prelude (Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr', BWV 676) one senses the other two would have looked on in stunned awe. His Toccata, Adagio and Fugue (BWV 564) is in its own league entirely. He's like a helicopter landing in the town square in the 1700s.
David Yearsley teaches musicology and performance at Cornell University. He has chosen for this recording the very felicitous 1984 Fisk organ at Stanford University, a vibrant and thrilling-sounding instrument that puts its tones before us almost like a 3-D hologram. His tempi are lively and the performances felicitous and sprightly. (I see, as an aside, that Dr. Yearsley writes a regular column for the online political magazine Counterpunch. The two I happened to stumble upon seemed like thinly-veiled Obama-hatred pieces, though the rest seem to be writing about more general musical matters. In any case, the playing on our present disc is delightful.)
As is so often the case, this Fisk instrument also merits a bit of mention. Here's another instrument from the hallowed Gloucester shops that plays with temperament (this time a bit like Martin Pasi's great Op. 14 instrument from 2003 in the Cathedral of St. Cecilia in Omaha). From the Fisk website:
By means of five additional pipes in every octave, a large lever can switch the Werk, Ruckpositive, Seitenwerk, and Pedal divisions from a Renaissance fifth-comma meantone to a well-tempered tuning like those J. S. Bach knew. The Brustpositive and the Brustpedalia are fixed in meantone and offer two sub-semitones, or split sharps, per octave, D sharp/E flat and G sharp/A flat.
I love these experiments, first for their glorious sound and second for the mechanical daring and sheer, whimsical expense. It says something good about our species that we can prioritize a device like this one. No A/B comparison between temperaments is on offer on this disc, but the instrument is noticeably not equally-tempered.
The sound from Loft is superb.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
At some point enthusiasm crosses the line into something unseemly, into almost a fetish. I feel sheepishly as though I've crossed this line with Mark Knopfler, having put up several gushing reviews of his last few albums. He released a new album a couple months ago, so one can predict what's coming from my end. (Because I don't review much of this kind of music, I've become a bit like the dental hygienist who keeps picking at the same spot over and over until she makes a problem where you didn't think you had one: Mark Knopfler again.)
But something about his approach just resonates with me; he achieves perfection in this particular musical style. Though this genre is not my musical bread and butter, he confirms to me that a high enough degree of competence or genius or inspiration simply overrides the mundanities and generalizations of genre; talent becomes its own reward, its own justification.
On his latest release, Get Lucky, he remains firmly in the same nest he has feathered all along--at least since I've been paying attention, that of acoustic folk-rock with essential instrumentation and a few well-chosen spices. These last four solo albums--The Ragpicker's Dream, Shangri-La, Kill to Get Crimson and Get Lucky--all sound as though they might have been recorded in the same recording session (with the next earlier album, Sailing to Philadelphia not far off this path). The differences between these releases are subtle, both in thematic material and in presentation. But that's quite all right; his is a mature artistry, and he's concerned to do what he does with exquisite attention to detail and not with trying a splash in someone else's pool.
Knopfler is renowned as a guitarist, of course, from his Dire Straits days and onward. He has perfected a distinct clawhammer / fingerpicking style, a whole-instrument approach that enables him to play pretty much anything. On these solo albums, his guitar has a quietly authoritative presence, his artistry not needing too much of the spotlight to make itself known. He alternates between quietly contrapuntal backgrounds and these wonderfully lyrical melodic treatments, both electric and acoustic--it makes one want to take up the instrument, his effortlessness almost convincing you that playing a guitar just couldn't be that hard. He is not a virtuoso as a singer, with a grumbling hang-dog voice that's more mumble than song; but it's the perfect instrument for telling a story, and his pitch and phrasing are delicious.
That storyteller's voice is key to the synergy of his songwriting approach: solidly affecting, singable melodies with a basic rock and roll background, and some usually haunting image / theme tying it all together. While this stylistic approach is fairly steady, the stories themselves cover a lot of ground: A man operating a locomotive, Homage to a mandolin maker, the remembrance of friends gone, the occasional love story. A nostalgia buff after my own heart, he's found a really haunting folk-sounding melody for the song Before Gas and TV, a look back at a simpler time that's just about gone from public consciousness.
Knopfler shows some of his influences here, with several songs paying musical homage to other artists of the singer / songwriter genre. One of my favorites here, So Far From the Clyde, chronicles a ship on its final journey being intentionally run aground for scrapping--a song with more than a passing resemblance to Gordon Lightfoot's The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. How deliciously he sets the tone:
They had a last supper the day of the beaching
She's a dead ship sailing - skeleton crew
The galley is empty, the stove pots are cooling
With what's left of a stew
Her time is approaching, t he captain moves over
The hangman steps in to do what he's paid for
With the wind and the tide she goes proud ahead steaming
And he drives her hard into the shore
The title track, Get Lucky, with its lovely whistle solo, channels Simon & Garfunkel's The Boxer (my favorite song of theirs), in a gentler form, a kind of Boxer Lite.
The album's final track, Piper to the End--yet another haunting and infectious tune--begins with a statement of musical theme on whistle and violin and concertina, a theme that sounds like it's been rattling around the highlands for a couple hundred years. (I'm assuming, though I don't know, that it's not an old melody.) But it has an intriguing twist. I've had pieces of music over the years which lodged themselves in my mind in a certain way, and I later learned that I had the counting or phrasing of a section of the piece wrong--it had gelled in my mind with the wrong orientation. Later, when I see sheet music or hear a live version I realize the error of my ways and what I "know" of the song changes too. And this theme, in Piper to the End, makes its appearance seeming to be one way, when in fact the bar lines are two counts off from what one initially hears. The notes are all the same, of course, but the phrases begin and end at different points than where instinct tells us they do, kind of like an Escher painting that flops between this and that. The song lopes along with occasional odd phrasing details, hinting at something. When the drums come in about halfway through the song, a little nudge is given to emphasize these bar lines, as if they know that people aren't going to count the phrases right without a little help. It's a subtle thing, but it changes the nature of the musical statement just a bit--maybe an analogy is how a spoken phrase can change its meaning depending on what words are emphasized. Well, you can't make a song out of that detail, and maybe it's a trick my mind plays on me that others will not experience (though I expect not). And the unexpected phrases, coupled with this bone-marrow melody, make for a very satisfying experience.
And it's an example of Knopfler's genius: he is not concerned to make a bold statement or to blaze new trails or to pander to the masses. This is another quiet effort, but one which stands up to repeated listenings and continues to yield satisfying little details. And that's right up my alley.
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Now Let Us Rejoice: Organ Hymns for the Sabbath
John Longhurst, Clay Christiansen and Richard Elliott
The Schoenstein Organ at the LDS Conference Center, Salt Lake City
Intellectual Reserve, Inc.
I'm a bit behind the power curve on this release as well.
A couple years ago on a Salt Lake City layover I made a visit to the Mormon Tabernacle to see the famous 1947 Aeolian-Skinner organ there--arguably the single most famous instrument from arguably America's most notorious organ building concern--actually, it's probably the single most famous pipe organ in America.
What I did not know was that at that moment I was a hundred yards or so from the recently-completed (in 2000) Latter Day Saints Conference Center. Wikipedia says (echoing the Mormon website) the new space is the largest theater-type auditorium ever built, seating some 21,000 people. That's over three times the capacity of the Tabernacle, a space larger than many sporting arenas. And the new space has an organ! I learned of space and organ alike while browsing the recent catalog from the Organ Historical Society.
A little further digging--especially a fascinating article by the primary Tabernacle organist John Longhurst about the design deliberations regarding the organ--reveals the difficulty involved in putting a pipe organ in a space that's much more akin to a stadium than to a church or theater. The initial planning asked questions about what kind of instrument to put in the new space, a conventional pipe organ versus an all-electric organ versus an electric / pipe hybrid or perhaps something altogether different. If we think about the electronic organs used in sport stadiums, we get a sense of the difficulty in getting a pipe organ to sound in so large a space, and to sound, well, like a church or auditorium organ. (John Longhurst's article also addresses the impracticality of specifying a concert organ, since 20,000 people are unlikely ever to come specifically to hear the organ. This is all stuff to be considered.)
After deliberating it was decided to follow the formula that had proved so successful in the smaller space, but adapted to the unique new setting: that is, a large "American Classic" style pipe organ designed to blend at appropriate power with the unassisted Tabernacle Choir, with the whole to be amplified to sound adequately throughout the space (this strikes me, actually, as one of the "hybrid" options, since what most people will hear in the space will be very much influenced by whatever public address system is employed). The necessity for amplification made it unnecessary to scale the instrument up to match the building, with the result that the new organ is about the same size as the Tabernacle organ (still a very sizeable instrument). The concern was more about colors and variety than power. The organ's "American Classic" style would be similar to the Tabernacle's famous Aeolian-Skinner, which makes for stylistic continuity with the Tabernacle. But it poses a challenge for whatever firm is chosen for the task (see Most Famous Organ in America comment above).
The Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company closed its doors in 1972 after a decade of steady decline, a victim of changing tastes. By this time the public taste had been in the thrall of the "neo-baroque" organ movement for over a decade. As so often happens in matters of public taste, we have in recent years come to recognize and celebrate some of the merits of these earlier ways of thinking about organ design and tone (and indeed there were those whose enthusiasm had never wavered). But in the early '70s the American Classic organ, the aesthetic embodied by Aeolian-Skinner and M.P. Möller and others, was distinctly out of fashion. By 2000 there weren't many firms with experience designing and building this style of organ (even if we'd begun to restore and protect the remaining American Classic organs).
Pipe organs are traditionally custom designed and built for a specific site, and an instrument like this one--a large, expensive, high-profile instrument in a very public space--would be a plum commission for any organ building firm. And so the search was on. The commission was awarded to the Schoenstein Organ Company of San Francisco for a grand instrument in the American Classic style, a modern rendition, one might say, of Aeolian-Skinner's work 60 years ago in the Tabernacle. Schoenstein has been in business since 1877, and they're a firm I've heard of but whose instruments are unfamiliar to me. But their historical aesthetic seems perfect for this application. From their website:
We are builders of organs in the Romantic-Symphonic style employing electric-pneumatic actions. Many have characterized our work as carrying forward into the 21st century the type of approach pioneered by E.M. Skinner.
(One of the organ's most intriguing features is the installation of a 32' Diaphone stop from an old organ in Los Angeles. A diaphone is a kind of reed pipe that uses a valve rather than a reed to vibrate the air column. This makes for a very strong fundamental tone with little harmonic development. Its function over a standard reed is the production of penetrating power--diaphones are used much more for foghorns nowadays than organ stops! Diaphones were never commonplace in organs and they're quite rare today--and in this installation its inclusion is evidently a step made to accommodate the immense hall into which the instrument speaks.)
Armed with all this new information, I was especially interested to dig into this recording. New installations of massive, high-profile instruments like this one or Lynn Dobson's recent instrument for Philadelphia's Kimmel Center or the now-famous Fisk at Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas are rare and special (and I'm now on a mission to find other recordings of Schoenstein instruments).
So the instrument is most interesting. But I wish we'd had a bit more substantial fare here for demonstration purposes. The disc is mostly of contemporary pieces, almost all short bits that seem suitable for some part of an actual church service (I guess they've given us fair warning: Hymns for the Sabbath). While a couple are a mite intriguing--Vaughan Williams' Prelude on the Welsh hymn tune Rhosymedre, Walford Davies' Solemn Melody, two Bach arrangements--most are a kind of mundane celebration of tonality, straightforwardly tuneful and harmonically unadventurous. Not that there isn't a place for this: these selections might be just what will play in the sanctuary (I imagine the congregation en masse might have little patience for, say, César Franck's Priere, to say nothing of Messiaen's Dieu Parmi Nous). But it's hard for me to generate much enthusiasm for a program seemingly chosen for a congregation's attention span. The organ's rich literature contains so very much more than this, and it would seem trivially easy to assemble a recital of substantial pieces to satisfy the mind as well as demonstrate the instrument. Even the two Bach pieces here are "arrangements," a kind of dumbed-down Wal-Mart version of Bach (the idea of someone "improving" on Bach seems like a very good exemplar of real sacrilege).
I'd look forward to more from this instrument, but as alluded to above there may be little opportunity for concertizing on it. Perhaps it will find a recording life (despite the immense space having almost no acoustic, and the magnificent Tabernacle instrument a stone's throw away).
Friday, December 11, 2009
This is a repost from my other (non-music) blog. I'm thinking lately that these music-related posts should be moved over here; so a bit of housekeeping.
For those not familiar with his story, he is one of history's most gifted and eccentric musicians, someone who burst onto the scene in 1955 with a revelatory recording of J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations. He was 23 years old at the time. He was immediately hailed as a phenom and the Goldberg recording took off in a fashion then unheard-of for a classical release. An otherwise obscure work suddenly became mainstream, and Glenn Gould became a household name overnight. His manner of playing was, and remains, immediately recognizable: dry and dynamically-constrained (especially his Bach) with a kind of spare, puritan beauty, and with an astounding faculty for counterpoint. His was a very un-luxurious--un-romantic--approach to the piano for the time (not to say unemotional), and he revolutionized how we think of Bach on a modern grand piano.
He is renowned for his almost obscenely wide-ranging and exhaustive musical mind--and we'll come back to this--but also for his eccentricities. Indeed, more people probably came to know of him by his oddities than by his brilliance with what is after all a fairly obscure musical specialty. I feel a bit like a brain-cell-killing People Magazine article talking about his tics and mannerisms and his very odd career path, but in the final analysis they are extraordinary things, unavoidable aspects of one of history's most significant and noteworthy musical personalities. They are part of his story.
One of his oddest traits was his hostility to performing in public. He came to feel there was something competitive and gladiatorial in live musical performance, and so in 1964, at age 31, he renounced playing concerts, and he kept this resolution for the rest of his life. But for the few years where he graced the concert stage, he presented quite a spectacle (which, of course, played some role in how he viewed the music-consuming public).
If his playing were not so transporting, his manner at the piano might suggest some form of mental illness. He could not keep himself from vocalizing audibly and swaying precariously while he played; he often conducted himself and others if either hand were not in use, and he could not keep still when he was not playing; his posture at the piano was most unorthodox: he insisted the piano be raised a few inches on wooden blocks, and he sat on a low, folding wooden chair with the legs chopped off, and he slouched in the chair so that his nose was not far above the keyboard (this chair, which was originally altered by Gould's father, traveled with him everywhere, eventually coming to look like something salvaged from a junk yard--very odd indeed in Carnegie Hall! When it finally fell into splinters, he was bereft and unable to play properly, and he eventually commissioned an almost identical custom-made replacement, which he used until his death); the chair would creak distractingly as he swayed around during the performances, and between the squeaking and the singing his recordings all sound as though a brilliant pianist kept a disturbed friend at his side for the performances; his appearance was almost comical, as he slouched on his child's chair with his legs crossed and pedaled in his stocking feet, often with the wrong foot--his clothing was ill-fitting and often dirty and unkempt, and he played at least one concert with mismatched shoes; he was a legendary hypochondriac, traveling everywhere with a huge cache of pills and wearing a heavy topcoat and hat and scarf and mittens even in the hottest weather.
This list can go on and on, but it takes us ultimately in the wrong direction, I think. What remains to us after his death from a stroke in 1982 (at age 50) is a legacy of really extraordinary recorded performances. The recordings are of piano music, primarily, ranging from the pre-Baroque up to really compelling advocacy of contemporary composers. But he also left quite a bit of writing, and he worked in radio and television as well. One of his passions was for experimental radio quasi-documentaries (which he called "contrapuntal radio"), and he was one of the first people to see the possibilities of the new and emerging technological media.
He was particularly innovative with his own recordings. His rejection of concertizing stemmed in part from his conviction that recording was going to revolutionize how we consume music. It seemed quite reasonable to him that we might assemble our own favorite Mahler symphony by cobbling together individual movements from different recordings according to our preferences. And he was one of the first to record many takes of a work, or a part of a work, and then assemble a "perfect" version from the bits and pieces. This is, of course, commonplace today. The recording studio (or radio studio or television studio) enabled him to experiment almost without limit, and gave him absolute control over what was put forth to the public.
In the end it's his piano work which has set permanent hooks in me. So many of his recordings--of Bach particularly, but of other composers too--set the bar for the repertoire he tackled, and many remain the gold standard decades later. He had a unique aptitude for counterpoint, an ability to seemingly divide his brain into however many discreet sections as he had musical lines to play, giving each top billing. Like the mysteries of relativity, whatever you're looking at seems to be the musical idea getting fullest attention; everyone's the star! I'm sure I've not pinned it down exactly, but he simply does counterpoint better than anyone else.
Whatever his approach, whatever the admixture of composer and performer, his musical output remains absolutely compelling. To watch him playing on video is to witness complete mastery. More than mastery: his command of the piano itself makes this technical part of the process seem the least of his challenges, and I don't know that I've ever heard or seen a single incorrect note from him (I say this not because I think it should be anybody's priority, but because it shows something of how seamlessly he melded with his instrument).
He came from quite unextraordinary circumstances, showing signs of his odd, savant-like personality from a pretty young age. He rarely strayed far from Toronto, especially once he stopped concertizing, and as time went on he more and more lived a hermit's life where he interacted with people mostly over the telephone and tinkered with his technology in his own spaces. But it's hard to find fault with his approach when it yielded the results it did.
So here's a tip of the hat to one of my favorite geniuses.
There are a whole host of videos on YouTube with which to make one's introduction, and I'll just finish up with a few of my favorites.
Here's one that shows how he thinks and speaks about Bach. He had a pretty dense and high-flown way of talking and writing, but his understanding of his subject matter is always encyclopedic. (This is not the original video I posted, but that one is gone. Luckily, there are plenty of others.)
And here's one where he plays the first movement of Bach's Sixth Partita: