GRAMOPHONE Review: Christopher Houlihan Plays Bach
Gramophone, ed Distler
Christopher Houlihan commences BWV542’s Fantasia with a delightful introductory flourish, and characterises the rippling fireworks and introspective interludes with strikingly different yet compelling timbral contrasts, topping things off with a brisk and fluent fugue. The Italian Concerto’s first two movements work surprisingly well on the organ in Houlihan’s arrangement. He transforms the implied pedal points in the harpsichord score into real ones, although Bach’s indicated distinctions between solo and tutti passages don’t consistently come across. However, the finale’s crackling energy sinks under the organ’s sonorous weight. So does the climax of the Fugue in B minor, BWV544, where the massive registrations contrast with the relatively transparent woodwind-like stops prevailing throughout the Prelude.
On the other hand, Houlihan’s registral diversity enlivens and clarifies the lucid and excellently articulated contrapuntal interplay in all three movements of the G major Trio Sonata. His lithe tempos and incisive inner rhythm stand out in the C major Toccata and Fugue, BWV564, not to mention a central Adagio that emerges like an aria, as opposed to the blobby, interminable dirge that I’ve heard from certain famous Bach organists. If Houlihan’s C minor Passacaglia and Fugue misses some of the kinetic sweep and cumulative grandeur that Marie-Claire Alain and Anthony Newman have brought to it, the numerous contrasts in tone colour and dynamics not only add textural variety but also help to illuminate the music’s structure without labouring the point.
The engineering strikes a judicious balance between clear instrumental definition and preserving something of the chapel’s natural resonance. It may not be politically correct in 2017 to present Bach’s organ music on an American model instrument whose electro-pneumatic action and wide range of dynamics and registrations are far removed from the composer’s time. Yet when you reckon with a passionate and intelligently virtuoso musician such as Christopher Houlihan manning the Trinity College Chapel Organ in Hartford, Connecticut, who cares?