- Stephen Tharp plays St. Bavo, Haarlem

THE DIAPASON, February 2011, pp. 15-16
—John L. Speller
St. Louis, Missouri

Stephen Tharp, organ. JAV Recordings compact disc JAV 178, $25.00; www.pipeorgancds.com

Praeludium in E Minor, BuxWV 142, Buxtehude; Trio Sonata No. 4 in E Minor, BWV 528, J. S. Bach; Praeludium in G Major, Bruhns; Chorale Prelude on “Vater unser in Himmelreich," Böhm; Prelude and Fugue in D Major, BWV 532, J. S. Bach; Ave Maria von Arcadelt, S. 659, Liszt; Feux follets, Vierne; Variations sur un thème de Clément Jannequin, Alain; Toccata, Fugue and Hymne on Ave Maris Stella, Peeters.

The massive Sint Bavokerk in Haarlem is the largest church in Holland. With its chaste whitewashed walls, the Medieval church possesses an elegant if austere grandeur, making the opulence of the magnificent pipe organ at the west end by contrast all the more impressive. The commanding three-manual-and-pedal instrument has casework with a 32-foot tin façade and incorporates sculpture by Jan van Logteren.
The Amsterdam organ builder Christian Müller constructed the organ between 1735 and 1738, and the dedication took place on September 14, 1738.
At the time it was built, it was considered one of the greatest achievements of its age, and musicians flocked from far and wide to see it. The list of those who have played it reads like a Who’s Who of famous musicians, including such names as Handel, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Liszt.
Half a century ago, Jeanne Demessieux stunned audiences by her brilliant performances on the instrument, wearing high heels, of course, while teaching the summer programs of the Haarlem Conservatoire.
Today, nearly 275 years later, the Bavokerk organ is still acclaimed as a masterpiece. The late Stephen Bicknell described it as the Queen of Organs. Like all truly great organs, it has never really gone out of fashion, and as this recording demonstrates it is capable of accommodating a surprisingly diverse repertoire extremely well.

One of the foremost of the younger generation of organ recitalists, Stephen Tharp is perhaps best known for his recordings of Ernest M. Skinner organs on the JAV Recordings label. More recently, however, he has made several recordings on the Cavaillé-Coll organ at St. Sulpice in Paris, and now comes an extremely fine one on the organ of the Bavokerk.

Both the player and the instrument are thoroughly in their element playing Buxtehude, Bach, Bruhns, and Böhm. Stephen Tharp’s spirited performance of the fugue that forms the fifth section of the Buxtehude Praeludium in E Minor merits special mention; it is so full of energy as to take one’s breath away. The same can be said of the Bach Prelude and Fugue in D, where Tharp introduces some particularly effective ornamentation toward the end of the fugue. Also worthy of mention is the very unusual and imaginative registration used for Böhm’s Chorale Prelude on “Vater unser in Himmelreich," making use of the Pedal 32-ft. Principal, and adopting a combination of the Bovenwerk Dolceann with the celebrated Baarpijp for the solo.

Stephen Tharp then turns to music written a century or more after the Bavokerk organ was built, demonstrating how the instrument is capable of handling a much more diverse repertoire than that of the classical period for which it was designed. The first of these compositions is Franz Liszt’s organ transcription of Arcadelt’s Ave Maria. This is an excellent piece for showing off the delicate strings and flutes of the organ, and Tharp makes particularly creative use of the Bovenwerk 4-ft. and 2-ft. flutes played down an octave. In some ways even more impressive is the way the instrument handles more impressionistic music such as the Feux follets from Vierne’s Pièces de fantaisie.
The results are so convincing that it is by no means apparent that the piece is being played on an eighteenth-century Dutch organ rather than a nineteenth-century French one.
Indeed, Tharp produces some uncanny effects in the more “eerie" sections of the piece, imitative as it is of ghostly “Will o’ the wisps," and I have to say that this is probably the most successful performance of this composition that I have heard.
It is perhaps less surprising that Alain’s Variations sur un thème de Clément Jannequin comes off well of the Bavokerk organ, since it is not so far in conception from the Gonzalez style of “Néo-classique" instrument fashionable in the 1930s when Alain was writing, as it is from the organ of Liszt and Vierne. One of the soft reeds and the Hoofdwerk Tertiaan are heard to particularly good effect.

The final piece on the recording is Flor Peeters’ Toccata, Fugue and Hymne on Ave Maris Stella, which like the Alain piece comes off best on something a little more classical in flavor than a Cavaillé-Coll and is therefore ideally suited to the Bavokerk organ. The Bavokerk organ’s action allows some amazingly brilliant and virtuosic playing that one generally does not generally expect to hear on such a large tracker instrument. The Cornets and 32-foot stops also add a richness that one would not generally find on a Gonzalez “Néo-classique" organ.

The Bavokerk organ is, of course, a masterpiece. What is special about this particular recording of it is not only Stephen Tharp’s playing, but also his insightful choice of music to showcase the instrument and his imaginative choice of registration to make it sound its best.