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Any opportunity to hear the mighty 28,750-pipe, VI/729 Wanamaker organ in Macy’s department store in Philadelphia is to be welcomed. Here it is heard in an Anglo- French orchestra-accompanied programme with resident organist Peter Richard Conte and Rossen Milanov conducting the New Jersey-based Symphony in C.

Taken from a concert in 2014, also heard on the accompanying CD, the DVD includes recently filmed extras whetting the appetite (despite their brevity) for more, regrettably, than the music components offer.

On paper, Poulenc’s strings and timpani-accompanied G minor Concerto, Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture and Fourth Pomp and Circumstance March and Saint-Saëns’s ever-vivacious ‘Organ’ Symphony ought to have delivered something special. Instead, Milanov’s smoothly marshalled orchestra dictates pace and tone, Conte reluctant to seize even those grandstanding moments afforded the organ by Poulenc and Saint-Saëns.

A delightful bonus is film of a 2010 flash-mob rendition of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ chorus featuring 650 choristers in spontaneous voice.

Curious directorial choices favour close-ups of orchestra sections and audience, and wide, restlessly shifting panoramas of the seven-storey Grand Court atrium of Macy’s admittedly impressive flagship store. While we get extreme (if almost anonymously brief) close-ups of Conte’s hands at the console, there’s little to show how he employs the organ’s 729 stops, 168 piston buttons and 42 pedals.

Short documentary inserts compensate with historic interest: the first showing restorative gold- leaf gilding of the organ’s pipes, another featuring Wanamaker’s voice on Edison cylinders and fleeting archive footage.

More informative is a longer history of the organ’s Friends society, touching upon the instrument’s building for the 1904 St Louis World Fair, its relocation – courtesy of retail magnate John Wanamaker – to Philadelphia, and its subsequent evolution into the world’s largest musical instrument.

Admirers of the organ will find the extensive Curator’s Tour DVD produced by the Friends society and featuring Wanamaker guru Curt Mangel more satisfying or will want to wait for the forthcoming DVD portrait of the organ, A Sonic Odyssey, on Raven, a preview of which is included here.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica


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