, July 2006
2007 is, of course, Buxtehude year. It’s nice that a number of complete cycles of his organ music will presumably be completed in time for the occasion. There is now a body of recordings of this music from younger players to complement, if not entirely supersede the MDG Harald Vogel cycle from a decade ago. I have written twice here about the playing of the Danish organist Bine Bryndorf on her ongoing cycle for DaCapo. Naxos’s cycle started disappointingly with the CD of Volker Ellenberger, playing a not-so-interesting German organ. It has gathered pace though, mainly down to its use of outstanding modern organs in the US, but also to the playing of organists such as the quirky Wolfgang Rübsam, and his former student Julia Brown, and my friend and colleague Craig Cramer. Cramer’s volume 4 was recorded on the stupendous Fritts organ at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma; an instrument which defined the new American School of organ building in the generation after CB Fisk and the highly influential John Brombaugh. The largest and conceptually most interesting of these organs take 17th and 18th century Northern European models as their starting point and expands them to the point of virtual 21st century eclecticism, swell box and all. In a sense it’s what Rieger, Klais and all their European imitators have being trying to achieve for thirty years or more, albeit their starting point in the late 1960s and 1970s was to make a truly ‘modern’ statement. Initially they succeeded in creating some compelling organs. The Americans however have now achieved ‘universal’ instruments of a far higher artistic standard than virtually anyone in the ‘old world’.
Martin Pasi is another of these organ builders. A 1995 two manual instrument at Trinity Church in Lynnwood, Washington awoke the US to his talents. The featured organ here is the builder’s op. 14, a three manual instrument for St Cecilia Cathedral, Omaha, completed in 2003. The organ develops not only the mentality behind the Fritts organ in Tacoma , but also refers back to Fisk’s influential dual-temperament organ built for Stanford University in California, twenty or so years ago. Here, like Tacoma, the organ features the swell box with harmonic flute, French reeds, and Celeste. But in the same 55 stop organ, no fewer than 29 stops from Great, Positive and Pedal are also available in ¼ comma meantone. These stops have no fewer than twenty pipes per octave.
This is all well and good but how does it sound? Based on this recording I think I can only judge the 29 stops which are in meantone, because I suspect that Brown plays mostly in meantone throughout the disc. By and large this is to the benefit of the music. Occasionally however the music goes beyond the bounds of the tuning to painful effect, (BuxWV 148 @ 7’30 in particular is rancid). But the parts of the organ which are demonstrated here are beyond criticism. The reeds are outstandingly good, the Prestants have a fabulous vocal quality; the chorus puts one in mind of Hamburg St Jacobi. This is a genial piece of organ building aided by an excellent sounding room. If you are interested to learn more about this extraordinary creation, Martin Pasi has an excellent set of photos on his website here: http://www.pasiorgans.com/cecilia/index.htm
The playing is also uniformly good. Like her Scheidemann CDs, Brown displays a highly sophisticated articulation-vocabulary, and a fine sense of affekt and atmosphere. As a former student of Rübsam, some rhetorical eccentricity is inevitable. The exaggerated snowball accelerando at the beginning of pieces, and of sections of free works grates after a while, and has the effect, occasionally, of inverting the accents. Most beautiful is her reading of the large Fantasia on Nun Freut Euch, where her registration changes, while still extensive, never become annoyingly excessive. Also noteworthy is that Brown doesn’t always resort to the Vogel formula ‘consort registration’ for the fugues; both in BuxWV156 are played with near-plenum registrations with the 16’ reed in the pedal!
The playing is for me a little too quirky to be unreservedly recommendable, but Brown is a real musician, and this organ is stunning beyond belief. Given the price, and the impending anniversary, don’t miss this!