Virgil Fox – The Bach Gamut – Fantasy & Fugue in G minor; Sheep May Safely Graze; Toccata, Adagio & Fugue in C; St. Matthew Passion – Finale; Prelude and Fugue in A minor; Air on G String; Prelude and Fugue in D; I Call to Thee – Reference Recordings

by | Jul 27, 2006 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Virgil Fox, Live in San Francisco 1976 – The Bach Gamut – Fantasy & Fugue in G minor; Sheep May Safely Graze; Toccata, Adagio & Fugue in C; St. Matthew Passion – Finale; Prelude and Fugue in A minor; Air on G String; Prelude and Fugue in D; I Call to Thee, Lord Jesus Christ – Virgil Fox at the Ruffatti pipe organ and Rodgers Royal V touring organ, St. Mary’s Cathedral, San Francisco – Reference Recordings HDCD RR-107, 66:19 ****:

Ah, Virgil Fox…As organist Carlo Curley is quoted in the note booklet: “He was not ‘an organist’ per se. He was a musician who chose the organ as his medium of expressive communication.”  And expressive is too mild a word for what he did.  In today’s musicologically-informed early music world, organists don’t play Bach with big sweeping crescendos ending in loud blasts, change complex registrations every several measures, or play quiet passages so softly that all those in the audience are holding their breath. His detractors called him The Liberace of the Organ, and he completely lost his standing with them towards the end of his life when he did his series of Heavy Organ concerts. In the same liner notes Michael Alan Fox says that more than a fabulous virtuoso, Fox was a presence.  He delivered spoken introductions to each of the selections with utmost conviction. Once when he was playing a pppp chorale someone in the large audience dared to cough, and Fox swept himself off the organ bench, announcing he was going to play the piece again from the start!

The live performance heard here occurred at the San Francisco cathedral that looks sort of like a giant Maytag,  It was packed with 5,500 people, including myself. I remember many of us sat on the floor.  Fox wore a sequined jacket and diamond-studded shoes. He got tremendous ovations after each selection. The Bach Gamut refers to his programming of various Preludes & Fugues, in order of keys – starting with A and going thru the alphabet from there.

Virtuoso recording engineer Keith O. Johnson recorded the concert live on his custom three-channel recorder. At one point in the Prelude & Fugue in D there was a sizeable portion missed due to a recording glitch and there was only the one unique recorder – no backup. Session producer Charles Swisher used a separate standard recorder to tape Virgil Fox’s commentaries (not heard on this CD). The booklet points out that due to the live concert situation and the age of the 1976 tapes, the sound quality is not representative of the label’s current work. However, aside from some low frequency rumbles I found Fox’s very colorful registrations to be communicated quite well. Like many other tapes of similar vintage, the binder of the oxide had become sticky, making the tapes unplayable. The standard solution for this has been careful baking of the tapes and then quick copying to digital media, but Keith Johnson said that destroyed some of the transient response and instead a process using isopropyl alcohol was employed instead, which completely restored the tapes.

This CD is the identical audio program to the CD included in the 2004 CD + DVD reissue produced by SeeMusicDVD. (It’s title is the same except for the addition of “Volume I” ) I compared the two CDs and found them close to the same, except for a slightly more open and transparent sonic on the Reference Recordings CD. I found the fidelity more pleasing on the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix of the DVD, created from Keith Johnson’s three-channel masters, but it may have just been the more involving impression of actually being in the cathedral with its reverberant sound. The primary addition on the DVD is the visual portion, consisting of widescreen color visuals created to match with the music, using the Kaleidoplex Digital Light Organ. The Heavy Organ concerts had used light show projections, and this seemed an appropriate accompaniment to Fox’s performances.

 – John Sunier

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