Stereophile's Test CD 2 Track 9

Track Information, Track 9

[9] J.S. Bach: Trio Sonata BWV 525, Adagio (ADD) 5:13
James Johnson (Flentrop organ)

Recording Venue: Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Recording Date: 1979
Recording Engineers: Peter W. Mitchell, E. Brad Meyer
Microphones: four Nakamichi CM-700s, two cardioid capsules in ORTF configuration, two widely spaced omnidirectional capsules
Microphone preamplifier: Mystic Valley Audio custom mixer
Recorder: ReVox A77 ¼" open-reel recorder at 15ips, with dbx noise reduction
Transfer to digital: Sony PCM-F1 (modified)
Digital Transfer: E. Brad Meyer & Northeastern Digital Recording
Original commercial release: 1988, James Johnson Plays Bach, Titanic TI-162 CD. (Titanic Records, P.O. Box 204, Somerville, MA 02144-0204. Titanic recordings are distributed in the US by Harmonia Mundi USA.) TI-162 was also available as an Ashmont LP.

Harvard's Busch-Reisinger Museum is a small chapel whose stone surfaces produce strong reverberation. The small organ, installed in 1958 by the Dutch company D.A. Flentrop, has a "positiv" rank of pipes mounted on the front rail of the Museum's balcony (often used for the melody), plus additional ranks of pipes 10' further back. To obtain an accurate recorded image of this spatial relationship, a semi-coincident pair of directional cardioid microphones was used in an ORTF array. Widely spaced omnidirectional mikes were mixed in at a lower level to enhance the sense of ambience and to reinforce the bass frequencies. (Unlike cardioid microphones, which tend to have a rolled-off bass except when very close to the sound source, omnidirectional microphones have a flat response to single-digit frequencies, in theory even to DC.)

JA chose this track, not only because it is one of his favorite Bach pieces for the organ, but also because of the lovely registration chosen by Mr. Johnson. The organ pipes have an appealing "chiff" or "chirp" at the onset of each note. Peter Mitchell points out that listeners may perceive some of the rhythms as oddly disjointed, because low pedal notes often sound slightly behind (in time) the melodic line. This is an acoustic attribute of "tracker" (not electronic) organs: it takes a fraction of a second longer for sound-pressure waves to build up and emerge from the large 8' and 16' pedal pipes at the back of the organ than from the small "positiv" pipes in front. This presents an artistic choice to the performer: whether to play the pedals slightly ahead of the beat, in order to make them sound on the beat. Brad and Peter discussed this question with James Johnson; he chooses to play all the notes on the beat, regarding "late" bass as part of the natural character of the organ.

Peter notes that he has also noticed a similar situation in symphony orchestras. He once heard Erich Leinsdorf, in an interview, state a lesson he learned from Toscanini about bass fiddles: they take a little longer than midrange instruments to develop their tone at full amplitude. So if the conductor wants bass entries to sound exactly on the beat—giving the performance a sense of urgency and momentum—the basses actually have to play slightly ahead of the beat. This, he said, was one of the secrets behind Toscanini's exciting performances.

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