by Lin Yangchen

A review of J. S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue BWV 565 played by Robert Elmore on the largest organ in the world at Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, USA, as recorded on Bach on the Biggest.

As one would expect of anyone given command of such huge forces, Robert Elmore has no qualms about drawing the 32-foot (and probably 64-foot) artillery and legions of higher registers—the depth and power is visceral and enveloping, way beyond even that of Notre Dame, St. Paul's or Passau. You might imagine an enormous glob of sound devoid of any internal structure whatsoever, but that is not the case at all. The incisive upper registers, accentuated by skilful articulation on the keyboards, effortlessly cut through the massive sonorities. Deciding which consecutive notes to join smoothly or separate with a momentary break is a fine art, especially in organ music, whose characteristic 'equilibrium' tones make articulation even more crucial for the transmission of the musical message. Elmore does a fine job that draws inspiration from but transcends Baroque articulation tactics, imparting to the music a great deal of momentum from beginning to end. I have heard players fudge up the rhythm and pulse of polyphonic Bach on much smaller organs by drawing too many fat stops and failing to articulate with the utmost discipline, to the point that the notes are all but indiscernible, so Elmore gets double credits for not letting that happen even at such high power settings.

Most players regulate their tempo quite cautiously according to Baroque performance practice, with restrained rubato at the few 'legal' spots. Not Elmore. When it is time to make a statement, Elmore liberally slows time down to make it; when it gets to the virtuosic runs he floors the accelerator and takes the listener on a roller coaster ride. At those speeds, one begins to perceive the emergent and magnificent large-scale shape and form of the passage rather than the individual notes which one can nevertheless hear are dexterously fingered. The listener is swept away by a hurricane, rather than having to psychologically drag the music behind him as is often the case when the music is played note-by-note like an etude. This instrument is big but certainly no pushover (pun intended) when it comes to agility. The acrobatics this monster is capable of are truly impressive. Velocity per se is one thing; acceleration and deceleration—change of speed—heighten the excitement even further. Just like the adrenaline rush of a jetliner accelerating down the runway to takeoff speed, it is the speeding up and slowing down of music that heralds impending emotional regime change. Marry this with the immaculate articulation described above, and this performance of BWV 565 comes alive like an improvisation, not a precomposed work.

Baroque performance practice brings forth the spirit of the music as conceived by the composer in the cultural circumstances of the time, but another hallmark of great music is its amenity to interpretation over the ages. Although the author deeply appreciates Bach on period instruments with period performance practice, music making is not all about conforming to stylistic convention all the time; it is about communicating to the audience and making them feel your way and go away with memories of a beautiful and coherent work of art. Elmore, too, brings out the best of the instrument on hand. That instrument is the biggest in the world, and it sounds like the biggest in the world. Furthermore, it sings with that extra piquancy and spice because the pipes are slightly out of tune with one another—I call it a probabilistic temperament. There is another time and place for the exquisite Baroque sound. The 565 is arguably about drama and grandeur, and Elmore doesn't attempt to subdue it with a veil of Baroque elegance. Bach would be amazed or horrified, but certainly not unmoved, if he walked in.
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