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Organ Recordings That Really Got Up Your Nose!

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We've all paid tribute to those seminal moments in organ recording history, and even possibly arrived at the laudable conclusion that Dr Francis Jackson is the finest UK organist of all time. Now for the antidote to organ sycophancy; the hunt for the worst organ recordings ever made.

 

However, to avoid such comments as "Dr X should have been drowned in a bucket at birth," I think we must have certain ground-rules.

 

What we do not need are personal insults; appealing though they may be in certain circumstances.

 

There are so many reasons for disappointing recordings; not least of which is technical quality, bad pressings, badly miked (miced?) or over compressed recordings. Sometimes it's a lack of musical sympathy, but equally, it may be an organ which never deserved to have a transducer stuck up its 32ft's.

 

Of course, if organists are dead and have no known living relatives; go for it!

 

I can start the ball-rolling with a dead organist; Fernando Germani.

 

Here was an icon, a beacon and a mega-star in one dapper Italian package. He was the organist's equivalent to a Ferrari; a thoroughbred who could outperform most.

 

Three or four times I made it to his UK recitals. He would play his own Toccata when most others shyed away from it, and play the best Reger imaginable, with a technical fluidity and style which almost beggared belief. He was a great teacher, and to many, a great inspiration.

 

So on the strength of this, I saved up my pocket money and bought both the LP and the EP of "Fernando Germani plays Bach at the Festival Hall".

 

Never had I been so disappointed as the day I rushed home to play it on the valve-powered "stereogram".

 

The sound was.....erm...very Festival Hall, with an acoustic as flat as a witch's mammary gland. The recording was not terribly good, and the performance utterly accurate yet totally bereft of life.

 

Some say that "this was the style in the 1960's," but it wasn't. Dr.Francis Jackson could play Bach brilliantly, and recorded that for posterity. Germani just somehow killed the music for me, with his totally flat playing and metronomic regularity; all played the same; to the point that only the title of the tracks changed.

 

I have often wondered why it was, that this incredible and charismatic organist, who could be absolutely astonishing in live performances, should play such lifeless Bach for a recording session. Perhaps I will never know, but on a scale of 1 to 10 in the "Organ recordings which really get up my nose," these discs have to be around number 9.

 

MM

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The worst commercial organ record I ever heard was given to me a few years ago. I quickly passed it on to a friend for his amusement, with the instruction not to even think of returning it to me!

 

Unfortunately, the details I recall are rather sketchy. But it was a recording made, I think, in the '60s or '70s of a Vicar's wife playing a village organ.

 

The playing was AWFUL. Wrong notes abounded, as did massive hesitations and misreadings.

 

How it was ever commercially released, I shall never know. :o

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I think that I would have to nominate "French Organ Music" recorded by E Power Biggs sometime in the 1960's (or possibly very early 70's) on the utterly un-French instrument of St George's Church, New York (a late 1950's Moller designed by Ernest White which even by 1960's neo-baroque standards was a real screecher).

 

The program included the Widor toccata, Finale from Vierne 1, Alain's Litanies and the Dupre Variations on a Noel.

 

A more unsympathetic combination of player, instrument and repertoire would be hard to find.

 

The Vierne sounded like breaking glass, punctuated by falling masonry with the trills in the right hand creating an effect almost indistinguishable from a high speed circular saw cutting wood.

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Guest Cynic

What an inciteful topic! [You naughty man.]

 

I have two recordings to suggest:

 

The first is Chrstopher Dearnley's recording of Franck's Chorale no.2 at Salisbury Cathedral.

Now, Salisbury can be made to sound pretty French by someone with taste/ears - I heard a live recital there by Pierre Cochereau in the 1960s which was a revelation and of course there are the splendid recordings Colin Walsh made there for Priory in the late 70s/early 80s.

What does Christopher do? He can't wait! The Willis Tubas (plural) come on on page 2 (where Franck indicates Anches Pos.)! I have only once heard anything quite so inappropriate, a performance of the Whitlock Sonata (1st movement) at Gloucester Cathedral where due to the absence of a Tuba, the Tuba phrases were played on Great Reeds (sounding like like ducks on heat) coupled to the West Positive Cornet!!

 

My second nomination goes to Carlo Curley's 'The Finest Hour' cassette from Blenheim Palace.

I have written in these columns of how fine a performance I heard him give some months ago in Hull City Hall, I speak as I find. However, his first piece from Blenheim is enough for me, indeed the first page is enough for me! How any player or any company thought this performance was fit for publication is beyond me. Pass ARCO? It wouldn't pass Grade 3 Associated Board. I also am incapable of a completely faultless performance, but we do try to keep obvious faults to a minimum!

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I can't quote a "worst performance"; my mind has probably gone into self-protective mode and refuses to remember this. However I can quote some "worsts" in other categories.

 

Worst recorded sound.

--------------------------

Gareth Green's "English Organ Music" on Naxos. Was the microphone outside the church?

 

Worst editing

---------------

Some Schweitzer reissues, but perhaps the transcriber was working from impossible masters.

 

 

Worst presentation (of an excellent recording of an excellent performance on excellent organ)

---------------------

 

DVD: "J S Bach and the Magic of Slovak Caves", pirated soundtrack issued without knowledge of the performer.

 

The organ pieces are familiar - Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV565, Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C, Prelude and Fugue in A minor, Fantasy and Fugue in G minor, and several chorale preludes. The pictures are almost exclusively of Slovak Caves, with occasional pan and zoom shots of two different werkprinzip organs. Much is made of the visual pun with the similarity in form of rows of organ pipes and stalagtites. Neither of the organs pictured is the one being played.

 

The on-screen titles show: "Lamp of God" instead of "Lamb of God", and because the person who did the titling mistook the end of a section in the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue for the end of the piece, every subsequent title is out of place. The final piece is therefore given the title "Slovak Gaves" (instead of "Slovak Caves") to complete the track list. The firm which did this refers to its work as "authering".

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... Now, Salisbury can be made to sound pretty French by someone with taste/ears - I heard a live recital there by Pierre Cochereau in the 1960s which was a revelation ...

 

Please tell me more, Cynic.

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[*]Widor, Symhony Nr. 10, Pierre Cochereau at Notre-Dame, Paris. Publishing this recording was the greatest injustice that Philips could inflict on this great organist. Obviously, he wasn't ready to play this when the mikes were switched on: no rhythm, no impetus, and too many wrong notes. At best, this is good sightreading.

 

Although PC is on record as stating that he was a bad sightreader! This said, various parts of the complete Vierne symphonies fare little better, with a consistent mis-reading of a short passage in the Final to the Sixième Symphonie (as well as a substantial accelerando in the last section). Then there is the inexplicable addition of a major sixth in at least one of the last four chords of the Final to the Première Symphonie. I also prefer the speed and overall interpretation of the earlier recording of the Deuxième Symphonie (made shortly after his appointment as Titulaire).

 

However, his reading of the Troisième Symphonie I prefer greatly to that by Marie-Claie Alain (recorded at S. Etienne, Caen), in which she manages regularly to displace the accents in the Scherzo, thus making the piece sound distinctly odd. Cochereau's articulation is also much clearer in the Final.

 

For a dodgy British recording, I recommend highly the rendering (or perhaps 'rending' may be more appropriate) of the Elgar Sonata, by Hubert Best at Birmingham Cathedral. The cathedral choir are not much better on the first side....

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Guest Stanley Monkhouse

Two recordings that stick in my memory for the wrong reasons: Ernest Maynard at Bath (Ryemuse) and Philip Dore at Ampleforth (Mendelssohn Sonatas, Vista I think). I have a great deal of sympathy for these two gentlemen (Dore was kind, delightful and so on) being now of an age and lack of regular experience that makes me nervous about playing in public, when once I recited in several cathedrals and big churches. I remember Kenneth Beard, that most gentle of men who achieved spine-tingling moments with Southwell choir through his sparing use of ff, saying much the same, and was it on this board that I read that John Dykes-Bower refused a GCOS invitation because he felt he wasn't up to it? Give us the grace to hear ourselves as others hear us.

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....Philip Dore at Ampleforth (Mendelssohn Sonatas, Vista I think).

 

Indeed, although published by RCA. I had wondered about quoting this one in my earlier post, but thought it might be a bit unkind. However, I'll now stick my head above the parapet!

 

These were the complete Mendelssohn organ works on two LPs. I bought Volume I and, needless to say, didn't purchase Volume II. Inaccurate, splashy, unrhythmical, and with little musical sense, I thought.

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Interesting thread - my nomination is a CD I bought when I visited Santiago de Compostella. I heard the organ briefly at a mass and thought a CD would at least be a nice souvenir. I've just been looking for it in my collection but can't even find it, so I'm afraid I can't say what was on it, maybe I threw it out in disgust, but it was truly awful playing. I seem to remember one track was one of the Franck chorales which normally I can hum along to, but I didn't even recognise it - so if you ever go there don't be tempted.

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For me, it was a Mendelssohn Complete double LP from Linz Cathedral, Kurt Rapf playing the grand Marcussen there.

 

The sound is incredibly shabby, as if taken on one of those seventies cassette recorders you took to the pool to impress the girls with the latest Boney M. songs (or others with the Village People). No judgement about the playing was possible.

 

Could have been so nice, considering the organ ...

 

Best,

Friedrich

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Interesting thread - my nomination is a CD I bought when I visited Santiago de Compostella. I heard the organ briefly at a mass and thought a CD would at least be a nice souvenir. I've just been looking for it in my collection but can't even find it, so I'm afraid I can't say what was on it, maybe I threw it out in disgust, but it was truly awful playing. I seem to remember one track was one of the Franck chorales which normally I can hum along to, but I didn't even recognise it - so if you ever go there don't be tempted.

 

Ah yes - I have two from here, both recorded by the older of the current tiulaires. It sounds as if he is playing whilst wearing thick gloves. The Trumpet Volunatry by John Stanley is featured on one CD - and it is genuinely unrecognisable.

 

Last October I did get to play the basilica organ for a Mass. It was a interesting experience. Tha Spanish priests clearly care little for the music and it is the only time I have been counted down to stop at precise (and awkward) moments when playing for a service.

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... Philip Dore at Ampleforth (Mendelssohn Sonatas, Vista I think).

No wonder he had problems if he used that operating system!

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I can't think of any particular recordings that 'got up my nose' but I felt huge frustration at a wonderful Alan Wicks / St Paul's recording of La Nativite which was an appalling pressing and spoiled the whole thing.

 

I was also generally disappointed by those old Vista recordings which always seemed to me to be recorded so closely that the ambience of the building was lost. Canterbury was a case in point, especially when compared with, say, Culverhouse's GCOS recording in the same place.

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Perhaps he was having trouble with the church mouse.

 

 

============================

 

 

Church mice!

 

There are lots of church mice at Ampleforth Abbey, and wherever you sit or kneel, they are right there with you.

 

Something to do with locality I think, because Robert Thompson (the "mouseman") lived and worked just down the road at Kilburn, and supplied most of the wood-carving and church-furniture for Ampleforth Abbey (and a great deal for the college).

 

It's one of the great glories of the building, and would now cost an absolute King's ransom.

 

I recall sitting in a humble cafe in Settle, North Yorkshire, eating a ham sandwich and sipping at a cup of tea. Every piece of furniture was by Robert Thompson, and having worked in management-accounting, I started to put a price on the fittings and furniture. After a few minutes, the terrible truth dawned, that if bought to-day, the cost of the furniture would exceed the value of the entire building!!!!!

 

Sorry about this diversion, but I thought members may find that interesting.

 

MM

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"I think that I would have to nominate "French Organ Music" recorded by E Power Biggs sometime in the 1960's (or possibly very early 70's) on the utterly un-French instrument of St George's Church, New York (a late 1950's Moller designed by Ernest White which even by 1960's neo-baroque standards was a real screecher)."

 

I am going to defend this recording briefly, although the organ seems undeniably nasty. The point of Biggs's recordings there was to show off the new recording technology which allowed the listener to experience the sound from different directions (the organ is scattered around the church I think). Biggs played annual Christmas concerts in St George's to huge audiences. My memory is that the Dupre is very well played, this afternoon I will dig out my copy to listen again.

 

" [*]Widor, Symphony Nr. 8, Odile Pierre at Notre-Dame de la Dalbade, Toulouse. The miking of this 1987 Motette recording is a disaster. It gave me the impression that Puget's instruments are shreakier than those of <insert your most abhorred organ builder here>. Fortunately, subsequent recordings (such as part of Tournemire's Orgue Mystique by Georges Delvallée) showed this beautiful instrument in a much better light."

 

I've played this organ, it is indeed wonderful, though in very poor condition. The acoustic is much better than in St Sernin. The organ was 100 years old in 1888 I think and was opened by Widor, hence its choice for that recording. There's something funny about all those Motette Widor recordings, which sound like they're coming down a railway tunnel. And I'm no fan of Odile Pierre.

 

Greetings

 

Bazuin

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Guest Roffensis
What an inciteful topic! [You naughty man.]

 

I have two recordings to suggest:

 

The first is Chrstopher Dearnley's recording of Franck's Chorale no.2 at Salisbury Cathedral.

Now, Salisbury can be made to sound pretty French by someone with taste/ears - I heard a live recital there by Pierre Cochereau in the 1960s which was a revelation and of course there are the splendid recordings Colin Walsh made there for Priory in the late 70s/early 80s.

What does Christopher do? He can't wait! The Willis Tubas (plural) come on on page 2 (where Franck indicates Anches Pos.)! I have only once heard anything quite so inappropriate, a performance of the Whitlock Sonata (1st movement) at Gloucester Cathedral where due to the absence of a Tuba, the Tuba phrases were played on Great Reeds (sounding like like ducks on heat) coupled to the West Positive Cornet!!

 

My second nomination goes to Carlo Curley's 'The Finest Hour' cassette from Blenheim Palace.

I have written in these columns of how fine a performance I heard him give some months ago in Hull City Hall, I speak as I find. However, his first piece from Blenheim is enough for me, indeed the first page is enough for me! How any player or any company thought this performance was fit for publication is beyond me. Pass ARCO? It wouldn't pass Grade 3 Associated Board. I also am incapable of a completely faultless performance, but we do try to keep obvious faults to a minimum!

 

I quite agree about the Blenheim. Also, the playing is rather overblown and phrased curiously, and the organ sounds tiring. It sounds like it was miked too closely, with too much top screaming away, and the Tuba was used a lot. These stops are interesting effects at times, a sound, but one to be used conservatively. I actually do not like Tubas. I think most are useless monstrosities, parping way.

 

The worst LP I have heard that I think of is of Holroyd at Bath Abbey, on the Hallmark label. It's a gem!!

 

R

 

R

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Unlike at least one person here I found the Statham performance of Bach's Dorian Fugue inspirational and of far greater help in getting into the music than some other more "authentic" performances in my collection. Likewise I really enjoyed Jimmy Biggs' performance of the Dupre from St George's New York : much more to my taste than eg that of Rolande Falcinelli at Meundon. I suppose that just goes to show that one man's meat......

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Organ CDs form only a minor part of my collection and most of them are extremely enjoyable. A couple are deadly dull, a couple more are merely sterile virtuosity, but only one is an out and out horror - Helmut Walcha playing Bach (the Schübler Chorales, a couple of Trio Sonatas and Sei gegrüsset) on the small organ of the Jacobikirche in Lüneburg. The playing I don't mind; it's the sound. I don't know whether it's the organ or Walcha's registration, but you can hardly hear the 8' stops at all. The whole disc sounds like an argument between the church mice and the bats.

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'I really enjoyed Jimmy Biggs' performance of the Dupre from St George's New York'

 

As promised I re-listened to it yesterday afternoon, the organ is indeed pretty yukky, but you have to admire Biggs's playing, its extraordinary (if more in spirit than in letter, I don't know what MD would have thought of it..)

 

Greetings

 

Bazuin

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