Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Prelude & Fugue in E flat, BWV552 [15:07]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Pièce Héroïque [8:01]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Adagio, Op.11 (arr. William Strickland) [8:40]
Eric R STEWART (b.1985)
Healey WILLAN (1880-1968)
Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue [16:29)
Felix Hell (organ)
rec. 2014, St Mark Lutheran Church, Hanover, USA
MSR CLASSICS MS1542 [60:37]
What might we expect from a CD of organ music entitled “Heroic Proportions”? Might we expect lots of heroic music – and there’s plenty of it about, you could fill several CDs with organ works with “Heroic” or associated words in their titles. Might we expect heroically-proportioned works with playing times stretching well beyond the 15 minute mark (considered long for a solo organ piece)? Might it be pieces which require heroic virtuosity from the player? Or might it be music which calls for a heroically-proportioned organ? The answer is, in this case, a bit of each.
Arguably the most famous organ work with a heroic title is here, in the shape of Franck’s Pièce Héroïque. Both the Bach and Healey Willan pieces which bookend the programme go beyond the 15 minute mark - despite Felix Hell’s heroic attempt to rattle through the Bach Fugue and Willan Introduction at speeds which calls into play a level of technical virtuosity which leaves the listener aghast. And this is clearly an organ of heroic proportions. Built in 1914 by J W Steere and Son, its last big rebuild occurred in 2010 when R J Brunner and Co. added several ranks of pipes and a new four-manual console. Its specification stretches to a heroic 70 speaking stops (with no less than 25 of those on the pedals) and incorporates a handful of theatrical percussion effects which Hell’s heroism does not extend to exhibiting on this disc.
Sadly, for all its physical grandiloquence, the organ is set in a church which, if the acoustic is anything to go by, is all carpets and heavy felt drapes. The sound, once made, instantly dies in an acoustic environment which is so dry as to be positively arid, and what heroic sounds the “Noble Trumpet” (8 foot on the Great), “Hellvecian Trumpet” (8 foot on the Echo), or “Bombarde” (32 foot on the pedals) produce, nothing seems to have more presence than a humble village church Cornopean in this acoustic. Even such enticing things as the “Muted Viole” (8 foot Echo) and “Erzhaler” (there are two 8 foot ones both on the Great) are lost in the killing acoustic of St Mark Lutheran church. And this is especially sad since it seems as if William Strickland’s arrangement of the Barber Adagio takes us across the whole gamut of the organ’s specification - minus of course the “Tower Chimes (Great) and “Harp” (Echo).
Possibly only a player of true virtuoso heroism could withstand the clinical exposure of this acoustic.
I am maybe in a minority in not having encountered Felix Hell before either live or on disc. His lavish biography in the booklet tells us that he is “one of the most sought-after concert organists of his generation” and that he has “performed more than 850 solo recitals” both throughout his native Germany and in some 17 other countries, including no less than 500 recitals in 46 of the American states. That in itself is a career of heroic proportions; made all the more heroic since Hell has only just turned 30. From the evidence of his playing here, he is a highly capable technician, capable of rattling off reams of short-value notes very quickly indeed (a propensity which, from my standpoint, does no favours to the Bach) and one who, one suspects, rarely puts a finger, thumb or foot out of place. Accuracy seems phenomenal – and I suspect that is not the result of judicious editing – and articulation is almost dazzling in its clarity.
The result is a recording which casts a harsh light on music which, perhaps, might do better in a more cloudy and atmospheric acoustical environment. The big exception to this is Sonetto by Eric R. Stewart, where lots of jagged chords and fragmented figurations positively flourish in this brittle climate and under the aggressive technical delivery of Hell. It was written for this organ and this performer, and it seems singularly well suited to both.
For the other works, the Franck certainly loses most of its heroic proportions given this rather clinical environment, and Hell’s concentration on clarity only serves to obscure the piece’s latent power. His angular progress through the Healey Willan Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue, has a somewhat unrelenting character which is only relieved by plenty of ebbing and flowing in the registration detail. While this is the one truly heroic work here, neither performer nor organ really do it full justice.