The Wanamaker Legacy, Organ CD Review
"The Wanamaker Legacy" (2004)
Peter Richard Conte
The Wanamaker Grand Court Organ,
Lord & Taylor, Philadelphia
Gothic Records G 49240
Review by Frederik Magle, © 2005
The "Wanamaker Organ" in the more than 45 meter high "Grand Court" atrium of the huge Lord & Taylor department store in Philadelphia, USA, is one of the two largest pipe organs in the world. The other being the Atlantic City Convention Hall (now renamed the "Boardwalk Hall") organ. But since the latter is in a terrible condition, with sadly just about 1/4 of the organ playable, and furthermore "only" has 449 ranks (though more than 33,000 pipes), the Wanamaker organ could reasonably be considered the largest pipe organ in the world today.
The gigantic instrument was constructed as the vision of the merchant-king John Wanamaker and his son Rodman Wanamaker. It incorporates the 10,000-pipe St. Louis World's Fair organ (from 1904) enlarged to more than 28,000 pipes in 461 ranks controlled by 399 stops on 6 manuals and a pedal. However, all of that would be utterly uninteresting from a musical point of view if the organ was not of high tonal quality, and fortunately it is. The organ is of romantic-symphonic design, but not in any way a "theatre organ", although it does contain a number of orchestral voices, including a unique 86-voices "string organ". However, it also contains full Diapason choruses , upper work, and it is not build using the "multiplex" system like theatre organs. All the stops in the manuals are "true" individual voices, and the pedal only contains very few derived or extended stops. The tonal qualities of the instrument are very fine and the organ is, despite of the large number of stops, well thought out and "pure" in style as a whole from an aesthetic point of view. Judging from the CD, it sounds like the organ is not in any way too large for the hall. Visit the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ for more information about the organ and its history.
Until very recently, the organ was in a deteriorating condition, but luckily it has now been restored to its full former glory and functionality (except one single division: the 41-rank Orchestral Organ which is still avaiting restoration). And it is in this revitalized condition it can be heard on the new "Wanamaker Legacy" audiophile-quality CD as performed by the Grand Court Organist, Peter Richard Conte.
The CD consists of works that are all in some way associated with the Wanamaker Organ. It starts out with two "Piéces de fantasie", Toccata (op. 53) and "Dédicase" (op. 54), composed by the French composer and organist Louis Vierne (1870-1937). The music of Vierne is often very contemplative and somehwat turned inwards, yet touching and beautiful, which the "Dédicase" is a fine example of. The Toccata on the other hand is a intense "show-piece", but still reflective and thoughtful at the same time of being musical fireworks of the highest octane. Louis Vierne performed these pieces on the Wanamaker organ in 1927 and the "Dédicase" is dedicated to Rodman Wanamaker. Peter Richard Conte performs them skillfully and with a fine musical touch, and they sound great on the vast organ.
They are followed by French organist/composer Félix-Alexandre Guilmant's (1837-1911) "Marche Religieuse" - based on the chorus "Lift up your heads" from Händel's Messiah. Guilmant performed the wonderfully "upbeat" and festive piece during the concerts he held on the original St. Louis World's Fair organ in 1904. This a very good rendition of the piece, and again the music sounds terrific on the organ. It also shows that this romantic-symphonic organ is indeed quite capable of performing highly polyphonic music with clarity.
The next piece is an arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Come, Sweet Death" (Komm, süsser Tod) by the legendary American organist Virgil Fox (1912-1980). Virgil Fox wrote the arrangement on the Wanamaker Organ in 1939 after being inspired by Leopold Stokowski's orchestral arrangement of the piece (Incidently Stokowski only began transcribing the works of J.S. Bach after having heard some of them performed on the Wanamaker Organ in a "symphonic" way!). Whether you like and approve of this shamelessly romantic rendition of the chorale is of course a matter of personal taste and opinion. I must say that, given the choice, I will normally prefer a more pure and "authentic" version, but this one indeed has some qualities as well if one can look aside from the "unauthenticism" and accept the style. There can be no doubt that both Stokowski and Virgil Fox truly revered the music of Bach and it shows; the arrangement is deepfelt and even touching at places. In any case Peter Richard Conte plays the piece with musicality and sensitivity and the arrangement sounds good (in its own way) on the symphonic organ for which it was made.
The only slight disappointment on the CD is the next track; the Cortège et Litanie (op. 19) by Marcel Dupré (1886-1971). It's a wonderful and powerful work that the French composer and organ virtouso Marcel Dupré composed for the Wanamaker organ, but in this version it falls between two chairs, so to speak. Dupré orginally composed two versions - one for organ solo and one for organ and symphony orchestra. Both versions are great in their own way, but on this CD, Peter Richard Conte has made an arrangement himself "combining the best" from the two versions (as the liner notes say). Unfortunately is does not work so well - I would have loved to hear the "real" organ version (or perhaps even better the organ and orchestra version), but in this rendition with "orchestral" registrations and playing, one misses a real orchestra, but more importantly the frequent use of the chimes and bells effects of the organ gets very distracting, and gives the piece an at times somewhat "cheap" feel, almost like it's some kind of entertainment music played on a theatre organ (which can be great, but not for this piece). The music does not benefit from that, on the contrary. I listened to this track once more to give it my fairest judgement, and the chimes (primarily later on in the piece, not so much in the beginning) are still annoying, so I will most likely skip this track in the future and go straight to the magnificent "Symphonie-Passion", op. 23 also composed by Marcel Dupré.
The Symphonie-Passion began its life when Dupré was given four themes; "Jesu redemptor omnimum", "Adeste fidelis", "Stabat Mater dolorosa", and "Adoro te devote" just prior to giving a recital on the Wanamaker Organ in 1921. On the spot, and with no preparation, Dupré improvised a major organ-symphony in 4 movements. It became a great success (and deservedly so) and he later wrote the improvisation down and turned it in to the work it is now. The Symphonie-Passion is one of my favorite "modern-romantic" organ works, and it is the main reason I bought this CD in the first place - to be able to hear the work performed on the very instrument on which it was conceived. And this is certainly not a disappointment. Peter Richard Conte plays the work, in a live-recording from 2002, with virtuosity, intensity and musical depth. The music shines on the organ and does not fail to give me the goosebumps more than once. Not least in the deeply touching third movement "Crucifixion" with its amazing build-up to a grand climax. My only slight peeve with Mr. Conte's otherwise great performance is that the accelerando and relatively high tempo in the buildup to the climax in the "Crucifixion" movement feels a little too fast. I think it would have been even more gripping if the tempo had been held back a little, but this does not detract from the overall good impression of the performance.
All in all I can recommend anyone to buy this CD and hear for themselfs how these excellent pieces sound on the largest pipe organ in the world - which is first and foremost a musical instrument of beautiful qualities - performed by the highly skilled organist Peter Richard Conte. A very good CD indeed!
Re: The Wanamaker Legacy, Organ CD Review
Well, for a review like that there's really nothing else to do than to order the cd... so that's what I've done. I'll get back to this thread when I've gotten the chance to listen to it.
BTW, what the special "Audiophile-quality" tag all about?
Re: The Wanamaker Legacy, Organ CD Review
A nice review, Frederik! LOL You don't have to apologize for liking the Virgil Fox arrangements--I used to play "Come, Sweet Death" that way too, as well as Fox's arrangement of "Now Thank We All Our God." Well, I don't usually play that way now, but it depends on where I'm playing, I might do them again someday!
The Symphonie-Passion also interests me, and I might buy the CD just to hear it.
I have not heard the Wanamaker organ in person for many, many years.
Vice Admiral Virtuoso
Wow! What an organ! It makes the one I play look like a squeeze box.
I love the colors on it too.
Admiral of Fugues
I own four Wanamaker CDs ... love them all, especially the one called Midnight at the Court.
Admiral of Fugues
Krummhorn - no, they're all played (marvellously well) by Mr. conte.
Admiral of Fugues
The fantastic Olivier Latry at Notre Dame one or the mono one with the master at St. Sulpice?
I have the complete Messiaen Organ Works played by Olivier Latry at Notre-Dame in Paris. I am always captivated by it. Below is the OHS catalog item page if you wish to order it:
Admiral of Fugues
Corno - I own it, and love it deeply - even the wonderful colour scheme for the graphic design. Beautiful in every regard.