Organ Spectacular (CD review)

David Briggs, organist. Delos DE 3241.

The sell here is that Delos Records bills the disc as the "Inaugural recording on the world's largest church organ." English organist and composer David Briggs plays the organs (there are two--one in the back of the church and one in front) of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles in six compositions demonstrating the power of the mighty beasts.

Producer and recording engineer John Eargle writes that the Dolby Surround technique he used "enhances the listening experience by reproducing an ambient sound field more closely approaching that of a musical performance in a reverberant space." I have the utmost respect for Mr. Eargle's work, but that "reverberant space" he speaks of needs to be toned down on this recording--way down. The sound is appropriately big all right: big, big, and more big, but it's also soft and distant and somewhat unfocused. I have to admit here that I am not a fan of solo organ music to begin with, so, yes, I'm showing my bias. Maybe this is exactly what the world's largest church organs do sound like in this church. However, it isn't like any other organ recording in my collection, which all sound much more clearly defined in spite of hall ambience; nor is it like any live church organ music I've ever experienced, like, say, the organ of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, with which I'm fairly familiar. Of course, it's only one organ, not two.

David Briggs
Anyway, of the six works performed on the disc, it's hard to tell why Mr. Briggs chose his own improvisations on an old Lutheran chorale, "Ein Feste Burg," to open the program. It is a twenty-three minute work that seems primarily designed to test one's patience. Of course, Mr. Briggs is a noted improviser, at the time of the recording in 1999 a Visiting Tutor in Improvisation at the Royal Northern College of Music, so that may explain it.

The rest of the pieces have more substance, although Briggs's playing is a little conservative, so don't expect the music to come to life as it might have under more-flamboyant (and more-controversial) players like Virgil Fox or E. Power Biggs. So, depending on your preference in organ playing (modest or splashy), you take your chances. For me, Briggs seemed a consummate artist in most of the pieces, although Walton's "Orb and Sceptre" march seemed so forward it was almost deafening yet so distant we have to squint over the crowds to see the music performed; odd.

Be that as it may, Faure's "Shylock: V. Nocturne," Nevin's "Will o' the Wisp," and Vierne's "Pieces de Fantasie: Carillon de Westminster" come off better, especially the latter with its playful takes on the chimes of Big Ben. Then, the program ends with another long piece, Reubke's Sonata on the 94th Psalm, which in four movements has its ups and downs (fortunately, mostly ups). Especially if you're a dedicated organ lover, you'll probably enjoy it. 

I'd have to say this disc is designed mainly for dedicated organ lovers, or for those curious to hear what these particular, really big organs sound like in surround audio; if, in fact, this IS what they really sound like, regardless of the number of channels. Non organ lovers, though, may safely pass.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For over 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me--point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, as of right now it comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio High Current preamplifier, AVA FET Valve 550hc or Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa