- The St. James' Recital, Stephen Tharp

Organists' Review, December 2017
by Barnaby Page

Duruflé Toccata from Suite pour Orgue, Op.5; Simonds Prelude on 'lam Sol Recedit Igneus'; Newman Toccata and Fuga Sinfonica on B.A.C.H.; Wagner Wotan's Farewell & Magic; Fire Music from Die Walküre; Baker Danse Diabolique; Bossi Scherzo in G minor, Op.49 no.2; Ravel La Valse

Stephen Tharp plays the organs of St. James', Madison Avenue, New York

Stephen Tharp's programme is clearly chosen to show off the organs of St James' in New York where he is artist in residence: a IV/61 Schoenstein in the chancel dating from 2009, and a separate II/16 gallery organ installed around the same time. The chancel instrument is unabashedly symphonic in concept, which barely nods at the classical revival. The gallery organ's tonal design, meanwhile, looks unusual on paper but it is versatile. Both are gorgeous, simultaneously rich and clear, with well-contrasted voices which fuse coherently. There are some unusual features such as double expression boxes, and an interesting essay on the organs in the booklet.
The music is delivered with panache right from the opening Duruflé: all energy, brilliance and timing, with thunderous pedal reeds and savage manual ones. There is more sensitive musicality on offer too, particularly in the Simonds Prélude. An atmospheric, if unexciting and somewhat overly long exercise, in the English-cathedral-between-the-wars quasi-improvisatory style, it shows off some exquisite solo colours.
That piece is the exception, however, in a disc of very well­ executed flashy numbers which are just slightly too similar. Some calmer moments interspersed would have been nice. The surprisingly
convincing Ravel transcription as well as the Wagner (nasal reeds, smoother ones, glittering flutes) provide further demonstration of the organ's capabilities, but more interesting musically are two works written for Tharp.
Newman's BACH toccata and fugue has a slightly Bachian feel and employs less orchestral registrations, although it is still very much in the tradition of the Romantic BACH works rather than anything Baroque. The well-known theme is intriguingly not much emphasised in the toccata, but becomes more obvious in the virtuosic and lucid fugue. The five minute Baker piece, receiving its world premiere recording here, is described by the composer as
'diabolical good fun' and it's a real recital lollipop, drawing on all the expected evil motifs. (It is also the first recording of Eugenio Fagiani's Ravel transcription.)
Altogether, a terrific showcase disc for the impressive St James' chancel organ in particular, though one is not given much idea of how well the instruments perform in church roles. Amazon.co.uk unfortunately seems to have only the MP3 available at the moment, but the physical CD can be bought from Amazon.com as well as other sources.