July 3, 2017
American Record Guide reviews - Christopher Houlihan plays Bach

BACH: Organ pieces Fantasia & Fugue in G minor; Italian Concerto; Prelude & Fugue in B minor; Trio Sonata 6 in G; Toccata, Adagio, & Fugue; Passacaglia & Fugue Christopher Houlihan Azica 71314-80 minutes

Prelude & Fugue in G; Preludes on Liebster Jesu; Concertos in D minor & C; Partita on Sei Gegrusset; Prelude & Fugue in C, S 547 Masaaki Suzuki BIS 2241 [SACD] 71 minutes

Both of these recordings of organ pieces by JS Bach are very fine, but they represent markedly different approaches. The contrast is instructive.

Christopher Houlihan is a rising young star in the North American organ world, acclaimed for his many performances in the US and Canada. He was a student of Paul Jacobs at Juilliard and also studied with John Rose at Trinity College, Hartford, CT, and with Jean-Baptiste Robin at the Regional Conservatory in Versailles. He is currently an artist in residence at Trinity College, where this recording was made, and director of music at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan.

The organ in the chapel of Trinity College is an instrument of three manuals and 79 ranks built in 1971 by the Austin Company of Hartford. Specifications are not given here, but they can be found on a page of the American Guild of Organists website, where the instrument is described as French classic. The notes with this recording describe it as American classic, and I think that is more accurate. This is clearly an eclectic instrument based on classic choruses but with an abundance of other colors to make it versatile enough to play most of the organ repertory. Individual registers may be based on French models, but the instrument is certainly not imitation Clicquot.

Houlihan's program consists of some of the best known of Bach's larger free compositions plus the performer's own arrangement of the Italian Concerto from Clavierubung II. He plays in the orchestral style that was pretty much standard in the first half of the 20th Century. One of his more striking interpretations is of the Prelude & Fugue in B minor (S 544), a work that may have been written for the funeral of Princess Christiane Eberhardine of Saxony. The prelude is played quietly as an understated lament with shifting tone colors. The fugue is treated as a large-scale orchestral crescendo. Houlihan often solos out lines in the fugues, though this seems somewhat at odds with the principle of a fugue as a web of theoretically equal melodic lines.

In the Trio Sonata in G (S 530) Houlihan nicely avoids the besetting problem of playing the trio sonatas on a large instrument: using registrations that are too heavy, thus making the music sound ponderous. Here the registrations are light and bright. He favors brisk tempos, and in the outer movements less speed and more articulation might have made the metrical structures clearer.

His arrangement of the Italian Concerto is not altogether convincing. The harpsichord gives the ritornellos of the outer movements a sparkle and transparency that I regard as an essential part of the music. The full organ treatment trades transparency for heft, and I think it a bad trade. The voice used for the right hand solo in II is just too thick for such a delicate melody.

Readers who like the orchestral approach to the Bach organ works will be delighted with this recording. It is a style of playing that Houlihan executes with consummate mastery. It is perhaps too tempting for some artists to indulge in the manipulation of organ apparatus as an end in itself rather than the servant of the music. Houlihan is not entirely exempt from this criticism, but I have heard far worse. I am increasingly convinced that the anachronistic imposition of shifting tone colors and intricate console acrobatics do nothing to enhance Bach's organ writing. At worst, the coloristic effects tend to distract attention from the music itself, falsifying its essential character. So this may not be a style of Bach playing that I find congenial, but there is no denying Houlihan's extraordinary achievement in this his first all-Bach recording.

Masaaki Suzuki is probably best known as founder (1990) and director of the Bach Collegium Japan and for his many recordings with them of Bach's sacred vocal works, including all of the cantatas, recorded in the chapel of Kobe Shoin Women's University, where the present recording was made. Suzuki is also an accomplished harpsichordist and organist, and this recording is the second volume in his series of the Bach organ works. I was very much impressed with the first volume (BIS 2111; Mar/Apr 2016) played on the historic Schnitger-Hinz organ at St Martin's Church, Groningen. I observed then that Suzuki's playing is eminently sane but far from dull. In contrast with Houlihan's orchestral approach, Suzuki adopts a more historical performance practice in keeping with the instruments he plays. At the same time, he avoids the brittle, frigid style perpetrated by some players who seem more interested in "authenticity" than in the music itself. On the contrary, Suzuki's mastery of articulation and agogic nuance imparts a coherence and animation to the music that allows it to speak eloquently without anachronistic overlay.

The Marc Garnier organ (1983) in the Shoin Chapel is an instrument of four manuals and 33 stops. In contrast with the Hartford Austin played by Houlihan, Garnier's instrument is decidedly French classic. The great and positif are the chief manual divisions. The recit consists of only a cornet mixture and trompette, while the echo has only a cornet mixture. The pedal division is small and depends on couplers for adequate support in larger registrations. Within these constraints, the instrument proves to be an admirable vehicle for these works. The quieter registers are heard to particular advantage in the chorale partita. The organ's tone is darker than one might expect of an instrument of this kind. It is well recorded at a respectful distance, but with good presence. The meantone tuning produces a fair number of sour moments that may bother some listeners.

I am especially impressed with Suzuki's performance of the Concerto in C (Grosso Mogul) after Vivaldi. With its long stretches of repeated figures and slow harmonic rhythm, it can be tedious. Suzuki demonstrates how it ought to be played. He gets beneath the busy surface and shows us how this music moves. It is not my favorite work on the program, but it is possibly the acid test of the performer's artistry. His performance is a revelation.


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