This SACD from Pentatone showcases the Aeolian Op. 1785 of Duke University Chapel, built between 1931 and 1932. It boasts four manuals, 81 stops, 102 ranks and, as Mike Foley points out in his absorbing booklet essay, some of the largest-scaled pipes ever to leave the firm’s factory in Garwood, New Jersey. This was Aeolian’s last independent project – they were taken over by rivals Skinner in 1932 – but the Op. 1785 saga doesn’t end there. Thanks to a public outcry the organ was saved from replacement in the 1980s and restored by Foley-Baker Inc. in 2008.
Listening to this disc I can only say it would have been a tragedy to lose an instrument ofRead more this calibre. It’s played here by Christopher Jacobson FRCO, chapel organist and a widely travelled recitalist. The recording is by Soundmirror, the Boston-based company that’s become something of a byword for engineering excellence. Among their high-profile projects are the Rachmaninov All-Night Vigil with Charles Bruffy and his fine choirs (Chandos) and several well-reviewed recordings with Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony (Reference Recordings). John Newton is the recording engineer on this release, with Mark Donahue responsible for mixing and mastering.
There’s no better curtain raiser than Finlandia, Sibelius’s stirring hymn to nascent nationhood. It’s given here in an arrangement by H. A. Fricker, who took over from William Spark as Civic Organist at Leeds Town Hall in 1898. He gave twice-weekly recitals on the hall’s Gray & Davison – free downstairs, 6d in the gallery – which, if his arrangement of this Sibelian showstopper is anything to go by, must have been hugely entertaining.
Jacobson’s account of the piece is huge too, but his playing is very well judged in terms of scale, articulation, rhythm and colour. As for the sound of this mighty beast it’s simply stupendous; the pedals – skull and rafter rattling – are probably as close to ‘being there’ as one’s ever likely to get, and the rest of the instrument’s range is just as well caught. Happily there’s no detail-obscuring echo and the wide, deep soundstage avoids the fatiguing ‘wall of sound’ that afflicts so many organ recordings. In any event this is a demonstration-quality track that’s will give your woofers a workout, impress your friends and annoy the neighbours.
That’s all very well, but albums such as this work best when the programme is varied in terms of scale, mood and style, each piece illuminating a different aspect of the organ’s character. The glorious surge and swell of Howells’ Rhapsody has never sounded so thrilling, its quieter passages so radiant. Then again this organ speaks with a warm, honest voice that suits this music very nicely. The ensuing excerpt from French composer-organist André Fleury’s Organ Symphony No. 2 shows just how clean-limbed this Aeolian is. What a delightful performance, brimming with quiet brilliance and firm but gentle rhythms.
The British composer-organist Edwin Lemare is probably best known for his transcriptions. Among the most popular and poignant of these is the Irish Tune from County Derry, immortalised as Danny Boy. My go-to version of the piece is on Warner-EMI’s Unforgettable Organ Classics, with Noel Rawsthorne at the organ of Coventry Cathedral. Poised, cleanly articulated and not at all sentimentalised that performance is hard to beat. As it happens heartfelt playing, apt registrations and a superb recording make Jacobson’s version very special too.
The most substantial work on this disc are the Trois Préludes et Fugues by the great French composer, organist and improviser Marcel Dupré. I’m more used to hearing these virtuoso pieces on a Cavaillé-Coll, but this awesome Aeolian certainly gives M. Aristide’s behemoths a run for their money. The contrapuntal writing is clear and well focused, as are those magnificent panoplies of sound. Perhaps others play the Op. 7 with a little more panache – daring, even – but Jacobson’s steady, thoughtful progress has its own rewards. Most important, perhaps, is that he scales and paces this music with great authority and skill.
After all that showmanship the lovely cadences of Vaughan Williams’ Rhosymedre (Lovely), based on a Welsh hymn tune by John David Edwards (1805-1885), find the organ at its full, open-hearted best. What a lovely, embraceable instrument this is, and how impeccably behaved. Even in ceremonial mode, as in Gloucester Cathedral organist and composer Herbert Brewer’s Marche Héroïque, this Aeolian processes with a quiet dignity that’s so utterly British. Once again the recording team capture all the fanfare and unfettered dynamics of this extraordinary instrument.
That’s followed by something very different: Jesus Loves Me, US composer William Bolcom’s spare but rather affecting take on the well-known children’s hymn. But this recital ends as it began with a guaranteed crowd-pleaser; it’s the French master Eugène Gigout’s Grand Chœur Dialogué in Scott McIntosh’s bold, bracing arrangement for organ and brass. The steel and sting of the Amalgam Ensemble makes for a thrilling contrast with the warm, weighty organ. What a knock-out; indeed, if an audience were present this spirited sign-off would surely elicit a spontaneous roar of approbation.
Goodness, I haven’t enjoyed an organ recital so much since Reference Recordings’ Organ Polychrome. A fabulous instrument, superbly played and recorded; an absolute must for organ fans.