Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Delicately Presbyterian.

Above: beauty shots of the new Casavant pipe organ at Brick Church.

Last night I heard Stephen Tharp play a lovely recital on the above instrument. This was my second experience with the instrument and my fourth Tharp recital. Overall, I think the Casavant is an incredibly interesting instrument that never quite becomes great, and Tharp is an fantastic recitalist and virtuoso.

First of all, Tharp is amazing. As this is the fourth recital of his I've heard in NYC over the past three years, I think I have a fair sampling of what he can do. He was actually the first organist I heard in recital in NYC, and that was on my first trip to St. Mary's, so I owe some of my recent elevated infatuation with both pipe organs and St. Mary's to him. His playing is spectacular. As another attendee aptly stated, he is capable of great flash for the grandiose pieces, as well as quiet beauty for the more serene moods. At times I could hardly believe how fast his fingers were moving. The Dupré was especially impressive--he laid into the 2nd Symphony at a breathtaking pace and he never let up through all three movements. The first movement was especially fun for me, as I have a recording of it I rather enjoy, and hearing it live for the first time played so very well was really special. Tharp had an entirely different take on the piece, one which I liked a lot better than the recording. I was on the edge of my seat.

The Casavant is a peculiar instrument. It's very, very good, make no mistake about that. It is unique in that it was built as a virtual copy of a Cavaillé-Coll French Symphonic instrument of the 19th Century. Modern materials were used, of course, but a vast number of too-technical-for-me details were created in the historic fashion, so the instrument probably comes close as any American pipe organ to accurately reproducing the sound for which the great French Symphonic composers wrote their music. This no-compromise approach to organ building is unique in the U.S., as by far most instruments are built here to adequately handle all of the major periods of pipe organ repertoire, rather than focusing on any one. The "plays everything" sound is, simply put, the origin of the American Classic school of organ building.

I appreciate the great effort and care that was devoted to creating this instrument, and I readily hail it as a success in reaching its goal. However, it's not really my favorite sound for pipe organs.

I think its strengths are its dynamic range and variety of colors in its solo stops. The organ can play so beautifully at nearly-inaudible volumes that I found myself sitting forward in my seat, straining to hear the teasing, subtle, precious sounds. From that low level it grows smoothly and steadily up to fortissimo, without a hint of any abrupt rank additions. Also, at times the solo stops sang out with incredibly interesting and colorful sounds. Unlike the Dobson at the Kimmel Center, I really felt the variety of options available in a 118 rank instrument, and every new rank presented a new idea.

The weaknesses for me came with the full organ sound. The organ seems weighted toward the high end of its range, without much gravitas in the bass. I know it has a full compliment of 32' and 16' stops, and I could certainly hear them played, but they never shook my insides. I want to feel the pew vibrating with the power of the final big chord. Perhaps the problem arises because the two sections of the organ reside on either side of the choir/altar area, and speak across that narrow space to each other, rather than directly out into the sanctuary. The result is a subtle difference which may not even be measurable in terms of volume, yet significantly affects the sound. Imagine a person singing a song just around a corner from where you are listening. You'll probably hear them without any trouble, but at least half of the sound will be the result of reflections, rather than hearing it directly, and the difference will stand out. The result is a somewhat muddy sound which kept me from hearing much of the quick keyboard work Mr. Tharp was doing, along with the lack of bass presence.

All in all, while it's easy to find issues with this pipe organ, it is still a gorgeous, complex, and unique instrument which I thoroughly enjoy hearing. Stephen Tharp brought out the best in it, without a doubt.

It was truly a lovely way to spend an evening, and well worth the trek to the stodgy Upper East Side. Why do I love scaring all the delicate Presbyterian ladies into clutching their pearls? I suppose I could wear my work drag and avoid all that, but it's really not me, so they just have to put up with my skinny black jeans and gold-skulled Vans. Oy, I'm a bad person.

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