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Virgil Fox Legacy Series, Vol. 1: The Girard College Recordings – E. M. Skinner organ (IV/100), recorded 1931-33, in Girard College Chapel, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Campra: Rigaudon; Bach: Fugue in G minor, S.542*; Vivaldi-Bach, arr. Middelschutte: Concerto in D Minor: Adagio; Bach: "Gigue" Fugue, S.577*; Bach, arr. Fox: Cantata 156: Arioso; Attr. Clarke: Trumpet Tune and Aire*; Vierne: Symphony II: Scherzo; Willan: Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue*; Bach, arr. Fox: Come, Sweet Death; Gigout: Toccata; Vierne: Claire de lune*; & Mulet: Tu es petra. OrganArts OA-4001. $15. Available online at http://www.organarts.com/ [inactive 12/07]. (* = not previously released.) .
The test of legends is their tenacity to endure through the ages. It is no surprise, therefore, that the organ playing of the legendary American organist Virgil Fox (1912-80) has been captured on a recently-released compact disc issued by the Legacy Series. The always imaginative and controversial Fox thrust the organ and its music into the public spotlight like no other organist, even performing at venues normally reserved for rock concerts. His recitals took on a flashy, sometimes psychedelic aura in hopes of winning people over to the music of the likes of Johann Sebastian Bach. Appropriately compared to the equally-legendary Liberace (the two performed "Tea for Two" on The Mike Douglas Show in 1973), Fox could not have had a more fabled career. From prodigy to entrepreneur without peer, he commandeered the concert world like royalty, right down to the robe (cape, actually). He never simply played; rather, he channeled the music directly from the composer to the audience, and always with artistic "refinements." Ultimately he went many steps beyond the music, milking every crescendo and rallentando for all their worth and inserting many of each where neither was called for in the music.
The Legacy Series compact disc under consideration is a re-issuing of the first recordings Fox ever made for RCA Records in 1941, with additional performances. His playing is well suited to the large Girard College Chapel organ, which speaks from chambers high up in the ceiling of the room. While the effect in person is spine-tingling, the organ's drama is difficult to capture in recordings, unless one installs audio speakers in the ceiling of one's home. Given that Fox's original recordings are from 78s that are 60+ years old, distortion and overdrive is to be expected. The digital transfer and restoration carried out by John Wilson captures everything that could and should be anticipated from these voices of recording history.
The most significant work on the CD is Healy Willan's Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue. Fox never recorded the work again, but then most of the organs on which he recorded did not possess the tonal palette of the Girard organ that is needed for this composition. The disc's inclusion of Fox's performance of it (not originally released on the 78s) makes this particular volume all the more valuable. The combination of a comprehensive organ, tour de force composition, and dynamic performer makes this the most satisfying playing on the CD.
Fox achieves a ravishing registration in the outer sections of Louis Vierne's "Claire de lune," but the tempo of the middle section is pressed to the breaking point. His recording of Vierne's Scherzo from Symphony II at the Riverside Church in New York (Organ Music from France, Capitol, 1958) shows far more maturity and ease with infinite tonal resources than demonstrated on the earlier Girard release. Fox puts the resources of the Girard organ to the test with his organ transcription of "Come, Sweet Death," based on Leopold Stokowski's orchestral recast of Bach's music. Two years earlier, Fox had stunned attendees of the national convention of the American Guild of Organists by his performance of "Come, Sweet Death" on the 29,000-pipe organ in Philadelphia's John Wanamaker Department Store (now Lord & Taylor). By comparison, Fox's Lp recording of the piece at Wanamaker's in 1964 (originally on Command Classics, re-released by the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ) exhibits even more liberty with tempo and phrasing than the 78 rpm format could allow. Likewise, Fox's arrangement of Bach's Arioso and Wilhelm Middelschulte's adaptation of the Vivaldi Adagio are treated as if they were transcriptions from orchestral repertory – very vintage Virgil!
The Legacy Series has established an extensive website (http://www.virgilfoxlegacy.com/ [inactive 12/07]) as an accompanying medium to the CD, courtesy of Len Lavasseur. Perhaps as a consequence, the enclosed booklet is somewhat lean in information. The organ is given a generous and sympathetic write-up by author and historian Jonathan Ambrosino, but no stop list or photos of the organ or interior of the Chapel are included. Nor is there any information about Fox himself. But these oversights are not likely to deter die-hard fans of Virgil Fox and his performance legacy, provided they have access to the Internet.