The Organ at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco: John Fenstermaker

Album review
The Organ at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco: John Fenstermaker

John Fenstermaker

The Organ at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco

Label: Wilson Audiophile
Media: LP
Genre: Classical

I take great pleasure in eating the words I wrote in Issue 14 regarding the unrecordability of the organ at Grace Cathedral. Evidence is now available that its four groupings of pipes, one at each point of the compass (and one of them hundreds of feet away from the rest) can be made to coalesce into an agreeably homogeneous recorded image. The acoustic, as captured on this record, even sounds something like the space itself, although two channels of audio will never be sufficient to totally recreate the reality of such a gargantuan expanse. One pleasant surprise here is that the cathedral's well-known reverb time of seven seconds, while still evident, obtrudes so little onto the texture of the music. It occurs to me that Dave Wilson's choice of mikes and their placement-arrived at after some fourteen months of patient probation-has captured the musical lines of these pieces with greater clarity than it is possible to hear from the usual listening positions. More evidence, if any is still needed, that microphones do not hear the way ears hear, and that it is possible for a recording to improve, in some respects, on reality.

John Fenstermaker, organist and choir- master of Grace Cathedral, has chosen a program of French literature ranging from the seventeenth century to the mid-twentieth, notable for its inclusion of seldom- heard early works, and for its avoidance, by and large, of bombast. If anything, the program is a bit too genteel for the taste of most audiophiles, dwelling as it does on low-level dynamics with only occasional outbursts from the full organ. The extended quiet passages expose a bit of tape hiss, as well as some low-level grunge from the American pressing that is being sold at the cathedral. Wilson has pressed a limited run on quieter Teldec vinyl (at the same plant, KM Records), which shows that the source of much of the noise on domestic pressings is American plastic. Order from Wilson and you'll get the Teldec.

What impresses me most about the record is the miking. Wilson wanted to use a coincident technique, so as to minimize phase cancellations and unwanted vertical excursions in mastering, but found (as I have) that single-point miking is incapable of capturing a sense of specific acoustic location. He arrived, at length, at a carefully spaced-down to the quarter of an inch-pair of omni Schoeps, and I have nothing but admiration for the realism they have captured.

What Wilson needs now is a first-quality recorder to replace his customized Revox, and a budget to work with. Marc Aubort has shown that there is a place in the American recording industry for one who understands miking. Is there room for two?

More Info

  • primary artist, John Fenstermaker
  • producer, Dave Wilson

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