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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Prelude and Fugue in C major, BWV 545 [6:25]
“Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott”, BWV 720 [3:33]
“Nun Danket Alle Gott”, BWV 657 [4:28]
“Von Gott will ich nicht lassen”, BWV 658 [4:07]
“Trio Sonata No.2 in C minor”, BWV 526 [11:43]
Concerto in A minor after Vivaldi, BWV 593 [11:51]
Six Schübler Chorales, BWV 645-650 [17:03]
Toccata and Fugue in F major, BWV 540 [14:13]
Todd Fickley (Hauptwerk organ)
rec. 2015 (this applies to the performance; the instrument was recorded in 2010), DDD
Hauptwerk digitalization of the the Marcussen & Sons organ, Laurenskerk, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
MSR CLASSICS MS1562 [73:21]

Inside-the-Beltway-native organist (that’s Washington D.C.-native, for anyone not actually inside the Beltway) Todd Fickley cut his Bach-teeth as part of the Washington Bach Consort under J. Reilly Lewis. Doing just that, I have heard him once during their afternoon-cantata cycle, stepping in for their usual organist Scott Dettra - who was conducting that day - on a February Tuesday in 2006, where he played the Prelude and Fugue in C Major, BWV 531. Admittedly, his performance was only the appetizer for the cantata and didn’t elicit more than an “ably played” in my review. Now Todd Fickley has tackled a complete cycle of Bach’s organ works. By the count of my Survey of Bach Organ Cycles, it would be the 32nd such cycle by (mostly) a single organist.*

The good aspects: This volume, and apparently every volume to come, is arranged with a keen eye to diversity of repertoire. This makes for good listening throughout, with scarcely a dull spot – assuming that any 70 minutes of any one subgenre within Bach’s organ music could possibly sound dull to the inclined listener. It’s expert, beautiful, broad, impressive playing… glorious and forward, crisp, clean and neat and ear-all-encompassing stuff. Part of that is no doubt thanks to the instrument. Except… which instrument?

It’s meant to be the 1973 Marcussen & Son organ in the Laurenskerk in Rotterdam. It’s a great mechanical instrument – literally: it’s the largest organ in the Netherlands and apparently the largest mechanical organ in the world: not Passau? While Marcussen & Son organs are frequently used for Bach recordings – among others by Kevin Bowyer (Nimbus, St. Hans Church in Odense), Simon Preston ( Tonbridge and Lübeck), Matthias Eisenberg (Hameln), Marie-Claire Alain II (Kolding), Lionel Rogg II (Kolding, also), for whatever reason this particular instrument is not. (Here’s a little YouTube sampler of church and organ in action.)

In any case, Todd Fickley isn’t really sitting in Rotterdam while recording, but at home or in the recording studio on a console which then replicates the Laurenskerk-organ sound via the Hauptwerk virtual organ system. (Here’s a YouTube video of Luca Raggi playing that organ’s Hauptwerk sample on his console.) The way this technology works is that the organ is recorded in its place, in its acoustic. The sound is captured in every detail, digitized, and then reproduced upon pushing the key of a console of one’s choice, assuming it can handle the technology.

Todd Fickley is up front about the fact that he plays these works on the virtual pipe organ of Hauptwerk. The liner notes go to some pains to point out that “all sounds being heard are the actual organ and not a simulation, nor is it the recording of a ‘digital instrument.’” On the MSR website, he goes into the advantages of this:

“Needless to say the implications are enormous, the most obvious being that historic instruments all over the world become readily available to organists and students. However, there is an amazing clarity to the recording allowing the most intricate counterpoint to be distinctly heard in ways that often surpass that which is experienced through the traditional recording method. Each pipe sample is individually cleaned and de-noised, and finally the whole organ is voiced specifically to the recording listener’s perspective. the sounds are put through no further processing, but rather are simply ‘assembled’ in real time as the organist plays.”

There’s an implied claim here that this is basically the real thing. Well, it’s true that I could not tell from listening that it isn’t. For starters, I have no recordings of said organ in my collection and I haven’t heard it live. But it isn’t actually the real thing. It’s more like your handwriting, scanned in great detail – each letter and each ligature – and then reproduced faithfully. The result will be very similar to the real thing … immediately recognizable for what it is, but hardly identical. It’s a recording of a recording, reproduced by playing an organ. This biases me against the project and the recording, unreasonably or not. I love my organ recordings of Bach (17 complete cycles among them) very specifically for the survey of different instruments they represent … catching these instruments in all their glory but also in their weaker, certainly unique, characterful ways. One of my favorite sets, that of East German Silbermann organs by various GDR-era organists on Berlin Classics, with most of these instruments caught before they got their loving and tender post-communist care and restauration, is by every objective standard flawed. Even with those flaws, like a colorful imperfect flock of chickens, all crooked beaks and irregular patterns, I still love them – the organs – for their character. For the same reason I disagree with Cameron Carpenter’s conceit that his organ is an improvement over other instruments. It is not an improvement, it is simply something else … namely something that better fits his virtuoso purpose, something repeatable, something predictable. Only someone who would think that the innumerous characters of all the world’s concert and church organs aren’t an integral part of organ music would think of any one instrument as the satisfying end to organ-diversity and the ensuing imperfections that are naturally a part of that.

If any of this is merely theoretical gobbledegook to you, rejoice, for what you get is an impeccable-sounding Bach program of pleasing variety where especially some of my favorite pieces (like the Largo from the Trio Sonata No.3 or the first movement of the Organ Concerto in A minor (BWV 593) come off very well … certainly on the surface of it. I’d like to think that were I to have reviewed the disc without ever reading the liner notes, it would have read pretty much the same, minus the organ-ideological excursion: a bit lost for meaningful words, impressed but not moved, without having found flaws to sink my teeth in, but also without much to find true joy. I cannot know whether this is so – although my very first impression at least was thus unsullied. Whether for purely psychological reasons or not, I happen not be very touched by these performances and prefer, thinking of great sounding, stylistically similar-ish recent recordings, those of Kei Koito on Claves by a considerable measure.

Jens F. Laurson
* This is counting Ewald Kooiman’s Third (?) cycle on Aeolus, which was finished by his students after Kooiman’s death… but not counting cycles that never made it onto CD (Alain I, Rogge II) and/or are hopelessly out of print. (Kooiman I & II, Kee etc.).



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