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The Time Capsule
Robin Walker (organ)
rec. 14-15 February 2016, Florence Abbey, Italy

The trouble with time capsules is that you never know whether anyone will be able to comprehend what is inside them when, at some future age, they are dug up. Even today’s generation will probably look askance at such things as cassette tapes and three-and-a-half inch floppy discs and wonder what on earth they are supposed to do with these ancient artefacts from the 1980s. Goodness knows how technology will have moved on when today’s buried SACDs, thumb drives and tablets are unearthed at some future date.

The booklet notes with this disc tell us that “organs are time capsules”. Organist Robin Walker, has tried his best to take us back to the 1550s by unearthing an old organ and plenty of old music to go with it. But how genuine are the contents of this time capsule? Are we able to access the artefacts in such a way as to gain some insight into that long-lost period in organ history?

Certainly we can admire the physical beauty of this organ - built by Onofrio Zefferini of Cortona in 1558 and installed in the Abbey of the Badia Florentina in central Florence - as it appears through the lens and digital processing software of a 21st century photographer (actually Walker himself). We can hear the sound it now makes in vivid 21st century digital audio which, we are informed by the booklet, was “recorded live and without edits”. And we can hear it playing music which would have been around when the organ was new, even if to reach us it has been filtered through successive generations of transcribers, editors and scholars.

Beyond that, however, we are in the realms of speculation and conjecture. Do we actually hear the instrument as it originally sounded? The answer is no. Presumably 21st century technology has been used to generate the steady wind supply which enables the instrument to speak to us so evenly. While a historic temperament has been used (5th comma meantone), we do not know that this organ was ever originally tuned to that temperament, nor whether it was ever consistently in tune to any temperament during its early life. The booklet does not inform us that the decorative organ case, depicted in one full-page image, actually dates from 1632, or that the instrument was substantially altered in 1978, albeit in an attempt to undo some of the many changes that it had undergone through the previous 400 years. The booklet notes do acknowledge that the instrument has been subjected to “light restoration” which has allowed it to speak “with the same clarity and character with which it did when first completed”. Really, however, this time capsule is more an exercise in speculation than the presentation of historical fact.

In truth, Walker makes no claims to the contrary and assumes (I hope) that audiences will be aware that this is not so much a genuine Time Capsule as an educated guess. It does raise the danger of assuming that just because something is old, it naturally has historic legitimacy. Nevertheless, as Walker writes, playing on old organs allows the organist to learn “much about the interpretation of older music”. So, for his programme went back to 15th and 16th century repertory which, while it certainly existed when this Florentine organ was newly-minted, almost certainly was never previously played on it. The net has been cast far and wide: from Spain (Cabezón and Morales), France (Attaingnant and Desprez) and England (Johnson, Tallis, Sheppard and Farrant) to the Alsace (Schmid), the Low Countries (Arcadelt), the German states (Buchner and Schlick) and various parts of what is now Italy (Merulo, Marco Antonio and Girolamo Cavarozzi and Andrea Gabrieli). Oddly, no piece - so far as I can tell - has any direct connection with Florence.

An aside: The fact that several of these composers’ names are misspelt on the CD listing does not inspire confidence. There also is something rather homespun about this whole project, which seems to have been put together entirely by Walker and his producer, Mario Costanzi. A few clipped starts to tracks may also disturb those who listen through headphones.

So, whether through headphones or speakers, what do our 21st century ears pick up from this very 21st century recording? Unquestionably we hear a beautifully clear sound, recorded with great clarity and immediacy. Extraneous noises from outside, the threat of which are highlighted in the booklet, only seriously intrude in the Attaingnant Prelude. Action noise, creaking from the bellows and all the other things which must have been part and parcel of organ music in the days before specialist technicians worked to expunge such things, are barely audible. Whatever kind of acoustic qualities this 10th century abbey had in the 16th century, the recording seems so close as to expunge any real sense of aural perspective. We hear the organ speaking directly to us, which is something no 16th century worshippers would have experienced. Beautifully poised, mellifluent singing prefaces Schlick’s Da pacem and the verses of Buchner’s Sanctus and Cavazzoni’s Magnificat quarti toni; it has a sense of professional vocal training and direction which would have been rare in monastic chanters of the 16th century. We are not told who these singers are. If they are the monks of the Badia Florentina, I must say they would give the most accomplished of professional choirs a run for their money.

As a performer of this repertory, Walker is nothing if not deeply committed and self-assured. If his playing has a weakness, it is in a reluctance to impose any real measure of interpretative personality on the music. Only with the closing bars of Farrant’s Felix namque do we feel a musician at work, elsewhere the music moves along accurately (give or take the odd tiny slip which editorial policy has decided should not be edited out) but without clear phrasing or shaping of the lines. This may be part and parcel of presenting the music as an historical artefact without superimposed 21st century interpretation, but I do wish Walker could be more willing to shift his focus from the harmonic detail and try to contour the music’s progress a little more artistically. Tallis’s Clarifica me Pater does rather drag on, despite the occasional acidic injections of false relations. And how we need something to alleviate the solidity of Arcadelt’s Exaltabo te Domino, which runs for an interminable six and a half minutes without any musical punctuation or melodic ebb and flow. Musically the highlight has to be Gabrieli’s Ricercare which, helped along by Walker’s brisk tempo and crisp articulation, makes a tremendously invigorating conclusion to the disc.

Walker knows this organ intimately, having been associated with it on a daily basis for some years. For modern-day organists, its single keyboard, two octaves of pull-down pedals and its specification of six basic stops might seem horribly restricting (sadly, Walker resists the temptation to show us its “toy Stops”, listed as “birds” and “crickets”). There still is a wealth of tonal variety here which speaks volumes both for the magnificence of the original instrument and for Walkers’s resourcefulness. He also cleverly contrives his programme so that, while it follows a largely geographical sequence, each piece inhabits a different registration environment from its neighbours. Small registration changes between the verses of Johnson’s Benedicam Domino add a lovely touch of variety, and some of the most enticing sounds appear in Cabezón’s Diferencias sobre ‘La dama’. The full organ sound exhibited at the end of Schmid’s Sicut mater consolatur is almost exciting in the fullness of tone. Nothing sounds ugly or even awkward, and the temperament certainly lends a degree of emotional depth to the music, whether or not that was something any of these composers ever intended.

In short, as a “Time Capsule” this disc is suspect, and its slightly shabby presentation does nothing to instil confidence, but as a purely listening experience, there is much to entice. Sometimes to our 21st century ears the music taken out of its original functional context seems to lack that bite and interest which is needed to hold the attention of those who listen rather than merely hear. Even so, if this disc poses more questions than it answers, that is all to the good. We should not just take what is presented to us for granted; and Robin Walker is to be applauded for having thrown down such an attractive gauntlet.
Marc Rochester

Josquin DESPREZ (1450-1521) : Cum Sancto Spirito [3:21]
Jacques ARCADELT (1507-1568) : Exaltabo te Domino [6:27]
Pierre ATTAINGNANT (1494-1552) : Prelude [2:13]
Robert JOHNSON (1500-1560) : Benedicam Domino [2:24]
Thomas TALLIS (1505-1585) : Clarifica me Pater I-III [4:02]
John SHEPPARD (1520-1563) : I Give You a New Commandment [3:37]
Richard FARRANT (1525-1580) : Felix namque [5:49]
Arnolt Schlick (1460-1521) : Da pacem [6:39]
Hans BUCHNER (1483-1538) : Sanctus [3:33]
Bernhard Schmid the elder (1535-1592) : Sicut mater consolatur [2:50]
Cristóbal Morales (1500-1553) : Un verso del quinta tono [1:38]
Antonio de Cabezón (1510-1566) : Diferencias sobre ‘ La dama’ [3:08]
Antonio de Cabezón : Tientos I: Segundo tono [5:09]
Claudio Merulo (1533-1604) : Toccata quarta del secondo tono [4:26]
Marco Antonio Cavazzoni (1490-1560) : L’autre jour par un matin [4:03]
Girolamo Cavazzoni (1525-1577) : Magnfiicat quarti toni [7:05]
Andrea Gabrieli (1510-1586) : Canzon detta Susanne un jour [3:23]
Andrea Gabrieli : Ricercare del sttimo tono [4:39]



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