CD Review: Pipedreams Premieres

by Jonathan Ambrosino

Many recordings attempt to capture the intensity and sensation of live events, but Pipedreams Premieres goes about the task differently. Following its title, this disc presents numerous artists, organs and works in “firsts” of some kind which have been heard on Pipedreams.

It is an intriguing concept. In commemorating ten years of the nationally-broadcast radio show, producer Michael Barone felt

...some sort of celebration was in order. Since we’d documented a number of first performances in our first decade, why not collect some of the works for which Pipedreams was the first major venue of outreach?

Accordingly, Barone has compiled the work of ten composers performed by eight different artists on eight instruments. The approach behind their selection is not unlike that of the radio show’s programming: to explore the organ world in all its current diversity, and air as many different examples as possible. Don’t consider Premieres a sampler disk for the organ novice, however, because it isn’t and was never intended to be. This is a specialized offering of unfamiliar music for those who know the instrument and its literature. (Imagine how the radio program Performance Today might sample recent chamber-music offerings under this same brief.) Furthermore, the disc enjoys first-class production: handsome four-color cover, beautifully-written program notes by Barone, impeccable recording data and complete background on all performers. For those weary of the same old Bach, Franck and Widor, Premieres will offer much refreshment.

Of the performances, all are interesting; certain of them are also enjoyable. John Weaver’s performances fall among the latter. The Nancy Plummer Faxon Intermezzo takes a simple thematic premise, starts in a quiet and uninteresting fashion, and then grows warmly with inviting harmonic development. Even better is Weaver’s splendid performance of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Ricercare at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. This major and fascinating new work is loosely constructed, but reveals honest form, development and direction; where it seems to digress, it at least offers much interesting melodic elaboration. Weaver’s elegant portrayal of the score’s nuances results in a tense and atmospheric reading.

Leonard Danek’s short Flowers is a charming, lyrical aside. It too creates an atmosphere, but one more stark and simple. The flowing, interesting melody is often canonically answered in the left-hand, all wrought in a harmonic language possessing a certain lush tension, not entirely like the restlessness of Delius. Has Danek created larger works? Equally interesting is Monte Mason’s Psalm 139: Domine, Probasti, an engaging, if slightly repetitive choral work. Sung in the stunning, spacious acoustics of St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Basilica, the work has its effect, though: part plain-song, part 20th-century mystical, with a Howellsian predilection for mixing Latin with English. It wears well over repeated listening.

A feA few otherwise admirable performances get marred down. Take Michael Ferguson’s performance of his completion of Bach’s great Contrapunctus XIV from Art of Fugue. Ferguson’s playing succeeds, not only for clarity of presentation, but for the spellbinding manner in which he spins out his own conclusion of this monumental quadruple fugue. To quote Barone, Ferguson introduces, “34 new statements of the four themes in 12 new combinations, five of them new stretti, as well as all four themes together—once upside down, and once rightside up.” This thrilling, inventive writing brings the work to an entirely persuasive conclusion; it is not until the end, when a few modulations stretch a bit past the point of plausibility, does one even remember that the new writing has taken over. It would be advantageous, then, to hear this wonderful piece performed on another instrument than the House of Hope Fisk. Although the music comes across plenty clear, the irregularities and lack of refinement in its plenum simply do not measure up to the beauty of the writing, especially not for a twelve minute stretch. At least on a recording, one can reduce the volume now and hope that Ferguson records this stunning work elsewhere.

In Marilyn Mason’s performance of three of William Bolcom’s Gospel Preludes, the Riverside Church Æolian-Skinner seems perfectly well suited to the literature; the difficulty perhaps lies more with the music itself. Intended to be sophisticated transformations of the originals, Bolcom’s preludes are certainly novel visions: gospel tunes cast as chorale preludes. Personally, the works seem insubstantial, valiant attempts which miss the point. Gospel music gains its might through pure soul, wherein otherwise simple tunes and harmonic progressions are powerfully elevated through the sheer force of vocal color and dramatic interpretation. Bolcom’s intellectual style of Gospel sometimes attains the power of the originals, but rarely its depth or stirring spirit. Furthermore, these pieces’ louder moments seem gratuitously dissonant. For example, where Bolcom’s tribute to Marvin Gaye attempts to portray a brutal death, it succeeds by creating more pain, this time in sound. But there is no doubting the zip of Dr. Mason’s performance of these works or her conviction for this music. Her zap! on the Riverside Church’s chamade trumpets during Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child almost sounds like the magical unison hand-clap of a hundred robed singers.

Bruce Simonds’ Dorian Prelude on Dies Irae is often put aside for the more popular Iam sol recedit igneus. It is interesting to sample the Dies Irae here, and to see why the Iam sol is so readily chosen instead. While loosely constructed, Iam sol still has a plausible unity that binds that work together. Dies Irae is a series of events without a plot; it is hardly offensive or poor, but more angst than music. As with Dr. Mason, however, Edward Berryman’s strong performance is not at issue. He makes the most possible of the score by conceiving the work in sections, appropriately shaping and coloring each one. (Perhaps the nicest moment occurs in the concluding pedal statement of the theme, for which Berryman draws the enclosed 32’ Fagotto and makes it fade away ominously). Through it all, one senses a natural control over this large instrument, and the poetic hand of a strong artist. We need to hear him and this promising vintage Æolian-Skinner, but in substantial, enjoyable literature.

The disc’s most significant premiere is that of the recently-discovered Mendelssohn works presented in 1986 at Columbia University by Thomas Murray and the late George Faxon. Included here is Murray’s performance of the Allegro, Chorale and Fugue, Mendelssohn’s longest single organ work and an absolute treasure. The piece begins with a bold fantasia, culminating in an original four-stanza chorale, the concluding stanza of which Mendelssohn uses as the subject of a complex fugue. With characteristic elegance, Murray leads out inner voices and uses separated manuals to emphasize obscure thematic statements in the piece’s intricate counterpoint. His playing is elegant and uent, his use of the instrument dynamic and compelling. The instrument, G. Donald Harrison’s 1938 masterpiece at Columbia University, serves this literature beautifully: its rich, warm and slightly articulate choruses, bright reeds and energetic pedal make excellent musical sense of Mendelssohn’s polyphony.

Throughout these performances, however, one awaits the extraordinary. As interesting as most of these selections are, there are few real flashes of brilliance, as if the moments captured were perhaps more unusual than unusually musical. For instance, Murray’s performance, though solid as ever, only brings to mind other occasions on which he has performed this same work with greater depth and flair; Berryman’s leaves us to take on faith that the organ or the concert were especially noteworthy. Admittedly, it takes a remarkable recording (Horowitz in Moscow, for example) to capture a crowd’s electricity; but as a whole, this recording could welcome some of that same spark, that controlled passion which makes one still go to a concert instead of just buying the CD.

Perhaps this is what makes Stephen Loher’s cut the best of all, a never-before-heard and never-since-played moment that this disc strives to capture. Loher’s entirely unpremeditated fanfare doesn’t pretend to be anything else, and is thus entirely convincing: an effective, dramatic yet accessible 90-second flourish which ends as strongly as it begins. Better still, the listener feels on-location almost to the point of eavesdropping. The mikes have caught the artist off-guard (he didn’t know he was being taped) in a state of complete indulgence—playing for no one but himself and God. To be sure, there are a few slipped notes, and even a hefty pneumatic thunk as Loher jabs the cancel button immediately afterward. But throughout, Loher’s exuberance and quick thinking produce the kind of musical passion one associates with the electricity of live performance. The sensation is unmistakable—and in it, the premise of Pipedreams Premieres truly succeeds.