April 2002

Magic!:  Peter Richard Conte at the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ
Dorian Recordings WK 55890
Released: 2001

by Jim Saxon

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

[Reviewed on CD]If you are looking to add a blockbuster organ recording to your collection, the one to buy is Magic!. The star of this compact disc is not the organist, although Peter Richard Conte performs heroically at the keyboard, but rather the organ itself, a 28,000-plus pipe instrument located inside the Lord & Taylor (formerly Wanamaker’s) department store in downtown Philadelphia. This amazingly large and complex musical device, the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ, was designed to play orchestral transcriptions. Indeed, after hearing a few seconds of the opening track, Musssorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain, I thought the organ had the backing of an orchestra. I had to check the CD booklet to verify that the disc was a solo work. The Grand Court Organ can draw so many colors from its vast tonal palette that the casual listener can be forgiven for making this mistake.

Peter Richard Conte, who is only the fourth Grand Court Organist employed to play the instrument since its installation in 1911, certainly knows how to manhandle such a musical giant. Conte’s robust Night on Bare Mountain is followed by the more introspective Wagnerian pieces "Wotan’s Farewell/Magic Fire Music." Although this track does not provide the first cut's fireworks, its brooding emotions are riveting. The sound of the organ "breathing" during the quiet passages inspires me to suggest that Dorian change the title of the CD from Magic! to Spooky!. Mr. Conte’s transcription of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice could serve as the background to a movie featuring ghouls and vampires in mad pursuit of pretty young co-eds.

On a disc filled with enormous crescendos, the most dynamic track is the least expected, Elgar's Cockaigne Overture "In London Town," Op. 40. This one will tell you if you’ve set the volume too high in case earlier tracks haven’t convinced you yet.

My favorite selection is the shortest and the moodiest, Nimrod from Elgar’s Variations, Op. 86 "Enigma" -- which also has the distinction of being the sole track on the disc not transcribed by Mr. Conte. This lyrical track reminds me of the music I used to hear at Wannamaker's department store in the late 1960s when I attended the University of Pennsylvania's Law School. In those days, the Great Court Organ was already heading into the state of disrepair from which it is now emerging. The powerful flourishes that Mr. Conte manages these days weren’t quite sustainable in 1969. I seem to recall that concert performances were more in the nature of shopper’s pick-me-up rather than riveting entertainment. Learning that the Great Court Organ, having been restored to health, can now substitute for a full orchestra is surprising. Moreover, the Luddite in me is happy to see that an analog instrument can produce a much greater sonority and tonal range than any digital keyboard I am aware of.

Sonically, Magic! is a great test CD. Check this legend from the back cover:

WARNING! This recording presents the full low-frequency information generated by The Wanamaker Grand Court Organ at Lord & Taylor, Philadelphia. Specially designed and modified equipment has been used so that no low-frequency roll-off has been introduced at any stage. The low-frequency content of the recording accurately reflects the actual range of the instrument down to the open 32' pipes (producing a 16Hz fundamental). The naturally high levels of bass information, and exceptionally wide dynamic range, contribute immeasurably to the sonic excitement of this recording. However, on first hearing please exercise great caution in setting the volume to establish a playback level that is safe for both your equipment and your hearing.

The good people at Dorian aren’t kidding. You stand forewarned.

Meanwhile, the way Magic! Captures ambience is state of the art. I hope Dorian will some day release this disc in a multichannel format. To hear the Great Court Organ in surround sound would be as close to being there as one could get without having to go to Philadelphia.