Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Daniel Sullivan's recording of the Goldberg Variations: Blowing fresh air through the organ pipes

"The Catholic mooing sound."

I don't remember where I read that, but it has stuck with me for years. It's only too true: organ playing in many Catholic churches is not only incompetent, it is boring. In many other churches, it is competent, but boring. Let's face it: the organ world can be rather mummified at times.

Enter Daniel Sullivan, a candidate for the Doctorate of Musical Arts at the prestigious Juilliard School in the studio of the inimitable Paul Jacobs, where the organ is getting a much-needed lift out of the "authentic" performance practice-induced doldrums. A few years ago, Sullivan got the attention of the country with his concert tour featuring his very own arrangement for organ of Bach's Goldberg Variations, a piece originally conceived for clavichord and now typically played on the piano. There soon followed a recording, which is now available through Raven. A sampling can be heard on this episode of Pipedreams.

In sharing this with friends, I have played a trick on them, all musicians, in order to get their most honest reactions. I insisted on playing the CD without saying what it was. The typical reaction was curiosity followed by amazement. "Oh, hmmmm, the Goldberg Variations for organ," they'd say during the Aria. Then, "Ooooooh, wow!!!" during the First Variation.

Indeed, Sullivan brings new life to this piece, magnifying its already contagious exuberance by efficaciously using the unique tonal palette which the pipe organ affords. Sullivan also makes judicious and ingenious decisions in terms of which voices should be soloed out and which movements should be played on, at times, as many as three different independent voices in a fashion reminiscent of the Bach Trio Sonatas. And in spite of the profundity and unfailing good taste of this rendition, there are nevertheless priceless moments of humor--a great antidote to insomnia, which Bach aspired to offer in the writing of this piece commissioned by a count plagued by sleeplessness.

This is a recording that has the power not only to inspire but to remake the listener's musicianship. It is iconoclastic in all the right ways: surely the ghost of Glenn Gould, whose anniversary year is just now coming to a conclusion, hovers all around this record. And dare I say, in spite of the raison d'etre of Bach's composition, that Sullivan shows us that many of these movements would harmonize quite nicely with the liturgy.

I recommend Sullivan's work without reserve. It will reward you with many hours of pleasure, formation, and re-formation.

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