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  French on the Flentrop

J. Melvin Butler


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£12.99 inc VAT



September 2001

There are those who consider the D.A. Flentrop Organ in St. Mark's Cathedral to be among the best organs in the world- some go so far as to say that this organ was Dirk Flentrop's finest. This is a well-earned reputation that might have become history if the recent Seattle earthquake had continued but a few more seconds. While the organ sustained some serious structural damage, pipework miraculously escaped and the remarkable cathedral which provides the organ's home was unscathed.

Why play French repertoire on an eclectic and even "neobaroque" organ? Quite simply, this CD presents Melvin Butler's recording of French repertoire on the Flentrop! This is an instrument with the nobility and "heart" to render this music with complete abandon- played by J. Melvin Butler, cathedral organist and an extraordinary musician.

Dr. Butler has an unerring sense of the sonic and rhythmic capability of both organ and room and delivers it flawlessly. Technically, Loft Recordings has obtained a nearly perfect pickup, neither too close nor to far from the organ, and the unique sound of the magnificent instrument is faithfully delivered on CD. This is no small accomplishment given the relative ease with which digital recordings can distort the tome of organ pipes in one way or another.

The term "faithful recording" is an obviously subjective analysis; nevertheless, this review often despairs when he hears the sound of a familiar organ via a digital reflection that presents another voice altogether. Dramatic instruments can become harsh and biting, or fine old romantic organs can sound as if they are speaking through a blanket. Pure temperaments can cut like a knife, forcing the listener to head for the volume control. All these problems seem to be a product of digital techniques that are applied to recordings today.

When a recording comes across with the same dynamic range as the actual instrument and the sound reminds one of the power and nobility that is really there, an element of faith is present in the recordings. You can believe that it tells the truth. This is certainly the case with "French on the Flentrop."

I do suggest some minor changes in the play list, but again, they are purely subjective. Butler begins his program with engaging and familiar Noels, which immediately capture the listener's attention. One is reminded that this organ can cast a spell upon its audience. Butler must surely sense this, because he weaves the web with knowing and skillful deftness. This organ has brought out the best in scores of performers and with this recordings, Butler joins the list. A minor point: I would be inclined to order the selection in historical sequence.

This CD was released in a contemporary collection of Loft Recordings and stands out among them as a real gem.

-Herbert L. Huestis

The Organ Magazine    www.theorganmag.com
February 2001

This is a wonderful release from the Seattle based Loft Recordings. It features the ground-breaking 1965 Flentrop at St Mark’s Cathedral, an organ that sounds as fresh now as radical it must have sounded then, and one which almost unlike any other organ from that period has steadfastly refused to become dated in its tonal outlook. It received a substantial makeover from the brilliant Paul Fritts in 1991, which included a new suspended action and extremely telling 32 Bazuin.

Cathedral organist Melvin Butler – a former student of Oberlin Conservatory and Eastman School of Music where his teacher was David Craighead – throws the Flentrop’s 58 stops around to great effect in a programme of French music ranging from de Grigny and Clerambault, through the Noëls of Daquin and Balbastre to Tournemire and Messiaen – a complete performance of La Nativité. His programme affords him the opportunity to show off all the organ’s solo colours (this organ is immensely colourful) as well as his own excellent technique – he reputedly beat over 100 other applicants to the job when he took over in 1992.

My only minor problems with this CD are with Mr Butler’s playing however, which is just a little too rigid, particularly in the early music and Messiaen, Alléluias sereins in particular suffering from an almost complete lack of incense, which the organ – though never sounding hugely French – and the acoustic undoubtedly allow him. So much of his chosen repertoire requires the expansiveness of a good French cheese, unfortunately I occasionally get the impression that the Brie has been in the fridge rather too long! His Tournemire – the Petite rapsodie improvisée and the Choral‑Improvisation sur le Victimae Paschali – on the other hand are spot on, fantastically dramatic but equally atmospheric when required.

It’s so exciting to receive a recording of a marvellous organ, in a fantastic acoustic, played by a man who knows its every quirk, and recorded by a man who also knows it rather intimately, Loft Recordings’ owner is Roger Sherman, the Cathedral’s assistant organist. He has captured it to perfection, the organ just jumps out of the speakers from the very start featuring the horizontal trumpets in Balbastre’s Noel, Au jô deu de poubelle. Organ recordings seldom get more exciting than this – don’t miss it!

Seattle Times

One of the finest pipe organs in the region, the huge Flentrop organ at St. Mark's Cathedral is put through its paces by one who knows it well - Cathedral organist J. Melvin Butler, who dazzles here in an all-French recording that extends over four centuries. Suiting the season is the sparkling "Suite de Noels"of Balbastre; the Messiaen "l'Ascension" is beautifully done. - Melinda Bargreen

Seattle Post - Intelligencer

There was no doubt about Butler's capabilities. His perfomances....gave ample evidence not only of his technical ability but his creative use of registrations.




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