Bach on the Organ

The organ at St. Mark's Cathedral.

On Friday, May 5, the Arts at St. Mark’s presents a very special concert featuring organist Balint Karosi, a master at playing the works of Bach as they would have been played by the composer himself.

Karosi, the 2008 first prize-winner of the Leipzig International J.S. Bach Competition (Leipzig, Germany, is where Bach spent a large part of his career, as organist and composer for the Thomaskirche), gives us an all-Bach recital on the magnificent mechanical-action Flentrop organ at St. Mark’s Cathedral. Built in 1965 and renovated in 1992–1995 by Fritts of Tacoma, the St. Mark’s organ is considered one of the finest instruments of its kind.

Before the advent of electricity, all organs were played by mechanical action: That is, every key is physically connected to each pipe by levers. The wind that supplies the air to go through those pipes comes via bellows; that wind going through the pipes creates the sound at specific pitches according to the shape, size and material the pipe is made of—which is how all wind instruments sound, too.

From the bellows, the wind goes to a big chest from which the air disbursement can be controlled, sort of the way a bagpipe has a bag where the air goes before it is sent to the chanters. (Personal note: When I was 10 my brother paid me sixpence an hour to pump the bellows for the local church organ so he could practice.)

Many organs today use electrical impulses rather than levers to operate the pipes, so those pipes can be anywhere in a church, whereas in a mechanical-action organ, also known as a “tracker” organ, the pipes must be close together. For the electrical ones, this positioning can create a wonderful surround-sound effect, but at the same time it alters the way the sound emerges from the pipes.

On any tracker organ like the Flentrop at St. Mark’s, every note begins with a tiny “chff,” a miniscule separation from the previous note. According to Michael Kleinschmidt, organist and choirmaster at St. Mark’s, the performer can affect the chff and with a slow release of the key, and create a tapered end to the note.

“It gives each note its own pearl-shaped entity,” he says. “It’s very subtle.”

To some extent the organist can control the turbulence in the wind supply, which creates different buoyancies. All this adds life and vibrancy to music such as that by Bach. Not all of his music sounded equally good on every instrument he played, probably because instruments were not uniform and he no doubt wrote music specific to particular organs. But the organs he played were small, even if they had several “manuals,” as the keyboard of an organ is called, whereas the much bigger Flentrop  has the ability to approximate any of the organs Bach might have played. Because it has low wind pressure as Bach’s organs would have had, Kleinschmidt says the organist has more control over how the pipes speak. “You do have the wind at your fingertips.”

Bach can sound wonderful on any instrument or combination of instruments, but it can sound at its most transcendent on an instrument such as that at St. Mark’s, in that acoustic, with its six-and-a-half second reverberation.

This is not to say that electrical instruments can be any less superb. For romantic music, the smoother, more blended sound of a fine instrument such as the big Hutchings-Votey from 1907 at St. James Cathedral sounds marvelous. It’s there I would go to hear late 19th century French music, for instance. The fine and powerful mechanical-action Fisk organ at Benaroya Hall has a far higher wind pressure, as befits a concert organ that needs to play over an orchestra, so there is a bit less finesse available to the organist. For those reasons, though I would never pass up a Bach recital on any instrument, this one coming up Friday at St. Mark’s should be sublime.

Karosi’s program is Prelude and Fugue in A Minor BWV 551, Partita on Christ, der du bist BWV 766, Concerto after Vivaldi in D Minor BWV 596,  Sonata No. 2 in C Minor BWV 526, Six Chorales BWV 645-650 (The so-called “Schübler Chorales”), and Toccata and Fugue in F Major BWV 540.