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Pictures at an Exhibition – The Ruffatti Organ of Buckfast Abbey
Dom Sebastian WOLFF (b.1929)
Fanfare for Easter Day [1:33]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor, BWV562 [13:37]
Nicolas De GRIGNY (1672-1703)
Récit de tierce en taille [5:30]
Joseph JONGEN (1873-1953)
Chant de Mai, Op.53 No.1 [5:40]
Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937)
Allegro (from Symphony No.6) [9:53]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition [38:05]
Martin Baker (organ)
rec. 2019, Buckfast Abbey, Devon, UK
AD FONTES AF001 [74:19]

When it comes to demonstrating the coloristic effects of an organ, other than a prolonged improvisation, nothing beats Pictures at an Exhibition. What is more, since there is no definitive version – Mussorgsky left it in fragmentary form as a piano score, but few believe that he would have left it like that had he been sober or well enough to work on it further before his death – the doors are wide open for anyone to make their own arrangement of it free from allegations of textural impropriety. The fact that there are innumerable recordings of the work on various organs, nearly all of which use different versions designed around the aural properties of each instrument, proves the point that its potential as a display piece has not gone unnoticed. Here, Martin Baker offers his own version of Mussorgsky’s classic, which does not so much take us around the original gallery of Hartmann’s sketches, designs and drawings, as the extensive stoplist of the new organ installed in Buckfast Abbey by the Italian organ builders Ruffatti.

For those who have become familiar with the world’s great organs through recordings, the loss of that bright-sounding Ralph Downes/Walker organ in Buckfast Abbey, immortalised in David M Patrick’s recordings of the 1970s and 80s, may well be a matter of regret. However, as Martin Baker writes in the lavish hard-back booklet which comes packaged with this CD, by 2014 that instrument had “come to the end of its working capabilities”. Its replacement by the firm of Ruffatti (whom, one might imagine, will be delighted at Baker’s generous marketing of their work in his booklet essay) certainly more than compensates for any lingering sentimentality over the loss of that 1952 pin-up for the Organ Reform movement. While, as one contributor to an internet discussion group on the new Buckfast Abbey organ noted, any “builder with half a brain could hardly go wrong in that glorious acoustic”, the Ruffatti organ as revealed in this recording, is an extremely beautiful and effective instrument.

This appears to be the first commercial recording on Buckfast Abbey’s own label, Ad Fontes, and it certainly is a highly impressive one. In addition to the lavish presentation, the recording quality from engineer David Hinitt is excellent, capturing the organ vividly and giving us a generous taste of “that glorious acoustic”. What is very disappointing, however, is that, while Marten Baker has chosen a programme (taken from his inaugural recital of the Ruffatti organ in April 2018) intended to show off the various stops on this new instrument, his registrations are not mapped out in the booklet. We have lots of words mulling over the machinations on the choice of builder for the new organ, and of Baker’s visits to the Ruffatti workshops in Padua, but we are left to guess what stops we are hearing from the specification list. I suppose, for those confined at this time to their homes, this will be a pleasant diversion to while away the hours, but I’d rather be told what stops I’m hearing; I’m not enough of an expert to recognise with any conviction the difference between, say, an Abbatial Trumpet and a Pontifical Trumpet.

Preceding the Mussorgsky is a varied programme which opens with a suitably joyous burst of musical festivity from one of Buckfast’s resident monastic brothers (Fr Sebastian has been at Buckfast for over 60 years) followed by Bach, the Passacaglia chosen because of its tour around a real panoply or organ sounds, but delivered in a sturdy, sensitive and, above-all, refreshingly fluent performance. An example of French classical organ music at its finest shows off the stylistic credentials of both instrument and player, while the delightful Jongen Chant de Mai offers up a moment of pure loveliness. The French romantic repertory, which Patrick concentrated on in his recordings, surfaces in a performance of the opening Allegro from Widor’s Sixth Symphony, which is so impressive one wishes we could have had the whole work here. And then we move on to Pictures.
A solo Trumpet (although whether it is the Abbatial or the Pontifical is anyone’s guess) sets off the first Promenade, and Baker brings in a fine range of stops underpinned by a vivid pedal stop (the 32-foot Contra Bourdon?) to produce a suitably dramatic opening. Appropriate sounds (never exactly ugly, but certainly weird) depict the Gnomus, who, with the benefit of the Buckfast Abbey acoustic, have about them more the air of gargoyles, and after a lovely burst of virtuosity, we move off into a somewhat ghostly, haunting second Promenade seeming to waft out of the far distance in this highly atmospheric recording. This sets the scene most effectively for the mournful theme given out by a gently pleading reed complemented by rich strings in The Old Castle. Tuileries gives us a lovely taste of some simply sparkling flue stops, while Bydlo trundles along purposefully with a beautifully voiced reed and an impressively managed build up and reduction of registration. The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks skips along playfully with plenty of cheeky mutation stops, Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle groan and grumble away with unusual clarity and some effective use of the swell pedal, contrasted by a majestic version of the Promenade and some exceptionally busy and voluble chattering from the crowds bustling around the marketplace at Limoges. After the little burst of quasi-French toccata which closes the preceding movement, there is a sense of monumental strength in Catacombć, which takes a spooky turn with some distant and remote sounds for Cum mortuis in lingua mortua; perhaps an even more effective evocation of Mussorgsky’s image for this movement than Ravel achieved in his classic orchestrated version. On the other hand, Baba Yaga propels itself along with blaring reeds and thundering pedals which perhaps overstates the picture’s subject, but the sense of triumphalism, majesty and opulent splendour Baker and this fine instrument give to the concluding Great Gate of Kiev is as impressive as any version – for organ, orchestra or anything else – that I have yet heard.

Marc Rochester

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