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 Wanamakers) 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, Musssorgskys 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. Contes robust Night on Bare Mountain is followed by the more introspective Wagnerian pieces "Wotans 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. Contes transcription of The Sorcerers 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 youve set the volume too high in case earlier tracks havent convinced you yet.
My favorite selection is the shortest and the moodiest, Nimrod from Elgars 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 werent quite sustainable in 1969. I seem to recall that concert performances were more in the nature of shoppers 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:
The good people at Dorian arent 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.
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