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Stunning Transcription: Mahler 5 by Briggs on Fisk


To date, we have heard three recitals on consecutive Tuesdays played on the new C. B. Fisk, Inc., organ at Harvard’s Memorial Church. David Higgs and Chelsea Chen, on April 10 and 17 respectively, played brilliant programs, and, for the many who attended both, it would have been reasonable to conclude that we now could pass judgment on this organ. But wait! The two-week appraisals, good though they were, fell away in David Briggs’s recital Tuesday evening, April 24, when he played his own transcription of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. The organ emerged as a living maker of sound in Briggs’s stunning performance. Fisk’s Op. 139, named to honor the memories of the organ company founder Charles B. Fisk and the late Rev. Peter J. Gomes, longtime preacher at “Mem Church,” told us that it wants to play with passion, guts and precision and that it has an emotional personality backed up by capability. This organ indeed does have the potential aptly to reflect the lives and accomplishments of its namesakes. Harvard, and thereby all of Boston, has a new giant.

It is a credit to Harvard and those who thoughtfully planned this dedication series of concerts that a Mahler symphony transcription was included. John Ferris, University Choirmaster at Harvard when the 1967 Fisk was procured, wrote in his memoir about that year of the organ’s installation:

“To save himself from the daily commute to Pigeon Cove, he [Fisk] often would stay at my house during the week. What a rare privilege this was for me! After a tough day’s work which often extended well into the night, we would sit up talking about organs, his passion for Mahler, and any one of a hundred topics. Not given to clichés or small talk, he was one of the few original thinkers I have ever met. Charles Fisk was a consummate artist and an extraordinary human being who left his mark on all who knew and worked with him.”

Prior to the performance, David Briggs spoke of the complexity and grandeur of Mahler’s music, in effect “music beyond music.” In the beginning of the Trauermarsch (first movement), we heard the organ’s reeds, from solo Trumpet to multiple combinations. Soon, however, in the first melody of the violins, we were listening to the singing quality of the organ’s diapasons, strings and flutes. Briggs beautifully played Mahler’s sonorous themes and built the architectural interweaving of phrases, so extraordinary in the Adagietto fourth movement, according to and with awareness of the organ’s gorgeous sound. It was in the manner of a conductor who is at one with an orchestra and the composer. Briggs’ choice of registration for the horn solo in the Adagietto was another highlight as were occasional solos on the Positiv division Clarinet and the Swell division Hautbois.

At the introduction of the 56-note fugue subject in the Rondo-Finale, the organ was on the thrilling and familiar home stretch with Bach’s fugues and counterpoint providing the foundation.

Two technical aspects of Op. 139 played a role in this concert. First is that this organ’s sound does not fade out in the treble as the pitches rise, nor is it shrill. For this reason melodies are satisfying and the organ plays through them as though it is singing. Charles Fisk, who was so interested in the wind in an organ, would love this.

The second aspect was noted in Christian Lane’s BMInt article of April 2: “the Swell division and the largest of the pedal pipes are housed in new construction within the attic of the church, speaking through a tone chute hidden by the upper portion of the casework.” The Fisk shop of course successfully engineered this different placement of sound from the Swell. Although it would have been a necessity regarding space, the placement must create more tonal depth —  just right for the Mahler.

It may be that the organ took on lifelike characteristics because Briggs did so much registering by hand. For major sound changes, he used preset pistons; but to tweak the sound, which he did constantly, he pulled stops on or off by hand. On a three-manual, 52-stops organ it is a feat in itself to do this, involving many split-second decisions and hand movements: the draw knobs are on both the left and right sides of the keyboards. With this exquisite attention to registration, Briggs painted pictures in sound.

Impressive too was the organ’s ability to keep up with Briggs in the extended fortissimo, furiously allegro passages. Organists are thrilled whenever they have the sensation that the organ is playing itself and in hearing Briggs speak later about his experience in this performance, I believe this is how he felt.

I felt an affinity to the 1967 organ that Charles Fisk built as opus 46 for Memorial Church, and I was present at organ recitals in the 1970s when every seat was taken. This month there has not been a full house but attendance has been steady at all three of the Tuesday evening recitals: people have heard the promise of this organ and have decided to return. This coming Sunday, April 29, at 4:00 pm, both the Fisk organ and the Skinner organ opus 793 (in the chancel of Appleton Chapel) will be featured in a concert with the Harvard University Choir and the singing of hymns.

The Rev. Professor Gomes adopted the use of simple, often one-syllable words as a profound art form in his sermons. I recall one of his sentences, “He did, and we did.” Fisk and Gomes did much with their lives and the organ with their name has their mutual spirit.

Joyce Painter Rice, an organist, recitalist, choral conductor and sometime concert organizer, has served in music capacities in a wide range of religious institutions. She is devoted to music for the Organ and shares that concern through volunteering in the American Guild of Organists and at the Methuen Memorial Music Hall, home of the Great Organ.

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  1. *Thank you, Joyce, for this informative and perceptive review.  It conveys accurately what took place that evening.

    Comment by Rosalind Mohnsen — April 27, 2012 at 11:21 am

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