LANGLAIS: Hymn d’Action de Grace Te Deum; Pasticcio
TOURNEMIRE: Assumptione BVM, L’Orgue Mystique, Suite 35
BACH: Toccata & Fugue in d Dorian
FRANCK: Piece Heroique
GRUNENWALD: Hommaga a Josquin-des-Pres
REGER: Toccata & Fugue in a, Op. 80
ROSS LEE FINNEY: Son long as the mind keeps silent
Robert Noehren Retrospective The great organist and teacher at the University of Michigan, and an organbuilder, too, plays stunning renditions of these works, mostly recorded on an organ he built in 1966 for St. John’s Cathedral, Milwaukee. Also heard is Noehren’s organ at First Baptist Church, Ann Arbor, as well as a Marcussen organ in Aarhus, Denmark. Recorded some years ago, these stereo recordings sound magnificent in their new digital format on CD.
The following review by Bynum Petty appears in the Journal of American Organbuilding, Volume 16, Number 4 (January, 2002):
Johann Sebastian Bach: Organ Works. Robert Noehren, organist. Noehren organs of The Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist, Milwaukee; and First Presbyterian Church, Buffalo. Fleur de Lis FL 0101-2.
An Organist’s Reader: Essays. Robert Noehren. Illustrated. 259 pages. Warren, Michigan: Harmonie Park Press. 1999. [Also available from the OHS Catalog]
December 2001 marked the ninetieth birthday of one of the most remarkable figures in modern American organ history. Born in Buffalo, New York, Robert Noehren began studying the piano at the age of seven; his teacher was strict, progress was painfully slow and he hated his lessons. From this dubious beginning, his career has spanned more than seventy years with astounding achievement. As a teacher, scholar, concert artist, and credible organbuilder, Mr. Noehren is unique, indeed.
The Organist’s Reader, a collection of twenty-three essays written over a period of about fifty years, is compelling reading; so much so that once I opened the book, I could not put it down until I had read it completely. Many of the essays have appeared previously in the Diapason, The American Organist and similar journals, while others on French organ music, Hindemith, rhythm and listening, touch at the organ, and an autobiographical sketch appear in print here for the first time.
At once the reader is drawn into the world of the writer with his fluent personal writing style. The first essays read as though entries in a travel journal. Noehren began travelling to Europe with the inauguration of trans-Atlantic plane service shortly after the end of World War II. In 1948 he made the first of many journeys to Europe to study the old organs of Germany, Holland and France. His descriptions of the sounds he heard coming from the works of Clicquot, Schnitger, Müller, and Moreau alone are worth the price of the book. He recalls to the reader with loving care the smooth velvety speech of the flutes in Poitiers; the “noble, magnificent sound” of the Christiaan Vater organ at the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam; the broad, flute-like and gentle character of the Schnitger Principal 8 at Lüdingworth; and the unique balance from register to register found on the Moreau organ in Gouda.
No less an interest was his quest for the ideal organ, one that would play convincingly most of the major literature and one that would have sensitive and responsive key action. This lead him eventually in 1954 to set up shop in Ann Arbor, where over the next twenty-four years he would build twenty organs for institutions throughout the country.
His opinions in these essays frequently are not consistent and some are controversial, namely his embrace of direct-electric wind chest action; his words must be seen as representative of the evolution of his discovery and thought. Noehren’s engaging style in these essays challenges the status quo of organ playing and of organbuilding without the least bit of abrasiveness. He is the patient teacher encouraging his students to do better, to reach for seemingly unattainable goals.
As a performer he was of the persuasion “that all musical instruments, especially the organ, are only a means to an end,” and that ultimately “it was the sound of music, not the instruments” which became the focus of his expanding tastes. It is to this sound we turn with the new recording on the Fleur de Lis label of previously unreleased Bach material made by Noehren in June and December of 1980 on his organs in Milwaukee and Buffalo. John Eargle in his liner notes remarks that “the clarity and effortless sound of these instruments, coupled with the facility and naturalness of Noehren’s playing, make for rare listening in today’s environment of so much hard-driven organ playing.”
The Noehren organs at the Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist, Milwaukee (1966), and First Presbyterian Church, Buffalo (1970), embody the essence of the performer’s ideal organ. In the essay, “Notes on the Design and Construction of a Modern Organ,” Noehren complains that “The organ as a concert instrument. . . has yet to appear as a convincing medium for the entire organ repertory.” He continues by saying that “There should be hope that a new instrument will emerge to fulfill the requirements of the serious organist and his music. . .”
Immediately one is impressed by the eclectic stop list of the two organs. For the most part, we find complete choruses on all divisions, independent pedal departments and the necessary registers for the performance of romantic literature. It is this very eclecticism, however, that sometimes mars the music of Bach in these recordings. Noehren’s use of manual reeds—French, it would appear—in the last variation—marked organo pleno—of Sei gegrüset, Jesu gütig obscures the inner voices making them virtually incomprehensible. This is a minor flaw in an otherwise refreshing and beautiful recording.
I draw the reader’s attention to the singing vocal quality of the Principal 8 accompaniment in the chorale prelude, Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein, and to Noehren’s sensitive and elegant phrasing of the same. With two chorale preludes and two partitas, we are lavished with tonal colors of exceptional quality. The gentle colors of flutes 8 and 2 sparkle in the first variation of the partita, O Gott, du frommer Gott. The clarity of Noehren’s principal choruses is abundant in the Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor. The listener becomes totally absorbed in Noehren’s graceful phrasing of the fugue subject and with his absolutely self-confident dance-like rhythm and tempo. In this work especially, we have no doubt that he is enjoying himself. Why not? He’s playing his ideal organ. The genius of Bach and Noehren combine in measures 65-68 of the episode in which we have the descending counter subject in the soprano and the subject in the tenor over a walking bass line producing an exhilaration rarely heard in organ performance today.
Prof. Noehren’s last words in the preface to his essays leave nothing more to be said of his rich and long career. “I was mainly a musician who was seriously trying to reach a high artistic standard in the performance of music. This was my raison d’être! The journey never ends. The organ is a complex instrument, and it remains today many things to many men, sometimes impressive, sometimes modest, and sometimes bizarre. Nevertheless, the hope survives that it will more often approach an ideal state, a responsive instrument with the tonal resources and form to serve the artistic needs of its rich and diverse music. [This is] the chronicle of one man, with his efforts and frustrations, in search of the ever elusive ideal organ.”