But it’s really necessary to come to Europe again, for everything must be done in stereo, and of course there are certain magnificent sounds, as for example at Zwolle, that we can never expect to get at the Museum. One just needs the huge space of the church.
Biggs’s last European recording trip had been in 1957, and in January 1961 he wrote to Flentrop indicating that plans for another such tour were taking shape, although “It is no longer as easy as it was (not that it was ever really easy!) for the equipment needed is twice as much and more difficult to control. Also there are the customs problems to be solved, with which you so kindly helped us the last time.”
What Biggs seems to have had in mind was a repeat or update of The Art of the Organ, but recorded with the newer equipment. John McClure, his current Columbia producer, thought that the least troublesome way to accomplish this would be in collaboration with the Philips firm’s offices in Baarn, Holland, and Hamburg, Germany. As negotiations progressed, the plan for the album metamorphosed into a survey of Arp Schnitger’s organs. Since they were all located in a rather narrow area of northern Holland and Germany, there would be considerably less travel than on the two earlier trips.
One must look hard on the map to discover some of the smaller Schnitger towns. A visit to these rather remote places prompts many reflections. For here is the work of a man who made a better mouse trap. And true to Emerson’s quip, the world has beaten a path to his door.
Biggs had recorded some of Schnitger’s masterpieces on previous tours, but this time, in the words of his 1964 Diapason account, he meant to beat a path to the legendary builder’s door in earnest.
The decision to employ the Philips engineers, while more costly than anticipated, proved wise, for Alex Saron of the Dutch office and Helmut Storjohann of the German branch took upon themselves a good part of the burden of making arrangements that would normally have fallen on Biggs and Peggy. There were, of course, the inevitable complications, not the least of which was the rising cost of using the church buildings. “The people at Alkmaar and Zwolle were very nice,” wrote Biggs to Saron in June 1961, “and the figures quoted are about right for these larger churches. But the figure given you at Uithuizen, both for the church and for the organ tuner, is quite a hold-up.” It was, in fact, “more than we have ever paid, even at such places as Salzburg Cathedral, for three nights and 3 LPs!”
Some problems were of a more comic nature, as when the engineers set up all their equipment in the wrong church. And after Biggs had received permission to record some Mozart works on the great Müller organ at Haarlem, he discovered that the church’s automatic carillon played faithfully and loudly every quarter hour (but could be silenced for a price). Saron also reported, no doubt to Biggs’s amusement, that the Haarlem people “were puzzled to hear you would need three nights, since organists who have recorded there previously, have always made an LP in one night.”
But on the whole, the operation went more smoothly than usual, both in Holland and in Germany. Biggs was introduced to the eminent Schnitger authority Gustav Fock, who was enthusiastic about Biggs’s project and provided valuable assistance, not the least of which involved sorting out the genuine Schnitger organs from the spurious ones. In Cappel Biggs found a recording artist’s dream, a church “in the middle of nowhere” with one of the best preserved of all Schnitger organs and “the priceless virtue of perfect quietness.” Steinkirchen was not quite so noiseless, for the town was in the middle of a shooting festival when Biggs arrived to record.
Only one little sticky situation threatened the full realization of the project. Just as Biggs was about to leave for Europe, word came from Philips that the organist of the St. Jakobi Church in Hamburg, home of one of the largest Schnitger organs (and where Biggs had given a recital in 1954), had “written a nasty letter . . . saying that he has a contract with the church giving him exclusive right to make recordings of the church’s Arp Schnitger organ, and he has no intention of giving up any of his rights.” The Hamburg organ was important to the completeness of the documentary, and Biggs fumed. Never before had he been refused the use of an organ for recording. The Philips people wheedled and intrigued, but to no avail. In September, after his return, Biggs wrote to Storjohann that “we were able to visit every Schnitger organ, with the exception of Hamburg.” And he was still slightly sore: “A historic organ such as that does not belong to the organist, but to the musical world at large!” While he expressed hope that he might still be able to record the Hamburg organ on a later trip, that never happened—yet the instrument does appear on the completed record. The mystery is solved when one observes that the piece played on it is Bach’s Toccata in D minor, the same work Biggs recorded on fourteen European organs back in 1954.
Biggs was building up quite a backlog of tapes for Columbia. The Haarlem recording was not released until 1966, although the Schnitger album, entitled The Golden Age of the Organ and accompanied by an illustrated jacket booklet containing an article by Fock, appeared early in 1964. Thirteen Schnitger organs are heard on that recording, playing mostly music by Bach and Pepping, the latter included to prove that old organs were not necessarily restricted to the playing of old music. It got good notices. Michael Steinberg of the Boston Globe called it “something that no one seriously interested in Baroque music will want to miss.” The New York Times praised the “clarity, brightness, and roundness of tone” of the organs and seemed to note a subtle change in Biggs’s playing: “Mr. Biggs takes advantage of his opportunities as guide and demonstrator; the role inspires some of his best playing, and it seems less impersonal than usual.”
Recording in East Germany was still on Biggs’s agenda, but while it first appeared that the Philips people might be able to arrange it, plans again fell through, and his dream of recording the fabled Silbermann organs and playing in Bach’s own church was once more deferred. But if Bach country was off limits, there were plenty of other composers whose home territories were easily accessible. While on the Schnitger trail, Biggs took time out to visit Lüneburg, on the North Sea. There, in the cavernous Johanniskirche, he recorded a disc’s worth of Buxtehude works on the large and recently renovated organ, which contained many pipes that were already old in Buxtehude’s day. “This is really quite successful,” wrote Biggs to McClure early in 1963. “The music is quite the best of Buxtehude, and the rough organ tone seems to suit it well.” This tape also languished a while in Columbia’s vaults, not being released until 1967.
One of Biggs’s friends and correspondents in the musicological world was H. C. Robbins Landon, the distinguished Haydn scholar. In 1961 he was living in Italy, editing Haydn’s complete works. Biggs wrote to him in the spring of that year, inquiring about some of Haydn’s organ concertos, and received a most encouraging response. Landon had just finished editing two of these concertos, and he had recently discovered a third. Further, he knew of not one but four authentic “Haydn” organs in Eisenstadt, where Haydn had spent much of his life, “so you can pay Columbia’s money and take your choice!” Biggs responded, “I mentioned the matter at Columbia records, and their reaction was immediate. Sure! When?” Biggs’s reaction was likewise immediate; he asked Landon to send him the organ parts of the concertos, so that he could begin learning them.
Of the four eighteenth-century organs in Eisenstadt, two were quite small, and of the other two, both by Georg Mallon of Vienna, one was badly in need of restoration. But the other, in the Stadtpfarrkirche (where in 1951 Landon had discovered a hitherto unknown Haydn manuscript in a rain-soaked stack of music in a corner of the choir loft), was a true “find.” The church’s acoustics were ideal for concerted music, and the sparkling little two-manual organ of 1770, which had actually been played by Haydn, had been restored in 1942 and was in excellent condition. The church authorities were cooperative, Landon was eager to help (and was promptly signed on to do the jacket notes), and Columbia was able to engage a very good chamber orchestra under the direction of Zoltan Rosznyai.
The Haydn concertos were recorded in 1962, and the album, a pleasantly listenable “sleeper” that deserved more attention than it got in America, was released in 1964. But the Eisenstadt situation was so ideal for recording (and, from Columbia’s standpoint, so favorable financially) that what had begun as the simple project of recording Haydn’s music on an authentic Haydn organ soon grew into a recording marathon.
For a number of years Biggs had been realizing figured basses and making arrangements for organ and orchestra of movements from Bach’s cantatas, and some had been recorded as early as 1951. Lately he had been working up some of them, perhaps on the off chance that his most recent bid to breach the Iron Curtain would be successful. In addition, his friend Daniel Pinkham had been commissioned to make some arrangements of familiar Christmas carols (“with all kinds of tonal tinsel”) to be recorded at the Museum. With all this material more or less in readiness, it made sense to Columbia to switch the recording location to Eisenstadt, where Biggs, the orchestra, and the equipment would already be installed. In addition, Biggs thought that it was time for a stereo version of the seventeen Mozart “Festival” Sonatas,” and since they were never far from his fingers, a complete new set was thrown in for good measure. Considering the amount of literature covered in this 1962 session, the quality of all of the resultant recordings is high. Biggs was in top form, having taken a short vacation in Bermuda before this session. There, besides relaxing, he could practice undisturbed in a small Anglican church, giving the parishioners a benefit concert in return for the favor.
On his return to the United States in the fall, Biggs had several years’ worth of releases on tape from the Eisenstadt sessions and the Schnitger trip—and a monumental editing task ahead of him, which he dovetailed into his concert schedule with his usual efficiency. Columbia was eager to get the Christmas record in the stores by October 1963, so it was processed first. The Bach, Haydn, and Schnitger albums appeared the following year.
Unlike most other recording artists, Biggs did nearly all of his own editing, both on his own equipment at home and with the engineers at the Columbia studios in New York. His standards were rigid as he sorted out numerous “takes” on the tapes, and he was not above splicing parts of takes together if he felt that a better product would result. Unless one has actually seen the reams of correspondence and notes this editing generated, it is difficult to convey what a tedious and time-consuming process it was. Yet Biggs never gave the impression that it was onerous; he seems in fact to have rolled up his sleeves for the task quite cheerfully. The following excerpts from Biggs’s letters to producer McClure during 1962 and 1963 may give some small hint of what was involved:
Everything we worked on, we got. And as you’ll see, there’s plenty for the record. . . . But several things that we did hurriedly, or hopefully, we just didn’t get. For example, the Oboe is wonderful in Ich Stehe [mit ein Fuss in Grabe, by Bach], but the strings play wrong notes, and there is no coverage. A different basic tempo in each take rules out certain other items. Altogether, a very illuminating session.
Most of the details we were able to edit out. But in many of the Nowells “one more take” would have made all the difference. The first is just an exploration of the notes. The second is tentative, and only after that do tempi, levels, and other items settle down.
[Music of] Jubilee is going to be all right—much better than on the tape you have. For I’ve found a way to redo the last chorus of the Christmas Oratorio, and now we have a much better and more convincing sequence of pieces.
Enclosed are a few comments I ventured to list about the relation of the different instruments to each other in tone level.
I hadn’t considered [the Bach chorale prelude] before, because my copy is so distorted in the bass, and the irregular action of the organ shows up in one or two places. But I doped it out on the tape copy . . . and you may feel it’s worth editing and popping in.
There seems to be a hum on my tape copy, but I hope this is not in the original. Or it may be covered by the music. If you say the word, I’ll be glad to run down and edit the item.
This is just a preliminary splicing, so that you can get the idea of things. And there are still a few spots that will be improved. All suggestions will be welcome, and I hope you will like the different order of menu.
I’ve literally been listening, copying, splicing and editing for two weeks and more! But I’m getting near the end of all the European stuff.
Better not go into the editing room . . . there’s a great pile of work there.
Reviews of the entire batch of European recordings were favorable. The British liked the Haydn album particularly. The Gramophone for June 1965 called it “unsuspected treasure.” Records and Recording for the same month noted that Biggs played the organ parts “with impeccable taste and unfailing vivacity on a gem of an organ,” but that the orchestra played “with rather less sense of period than the soloist.” The May E. M. G. Monthly Letter rated the Haydn release with their “best of the month.” Music of Jubilee (the album of Bach cantata excerpts) also fared well, as did the Christmas issue, Biggs’s first real venture into the more popular market.
The mountain of editing did not prevent Biggs from hatching another ambitious “Five Year Plan” in 1963. Most ambitious of all was a proposed Historic Organs of Europe series, each album to focus on the organs and music of a different country. Additional Bach Favorites albums recorded at the Museum were to be the main thrust of domestic recording. Other albums featuring single composers were under consideration, but not all of them materialized. Having discovered an authentic “Bruckner” organ in the monastery of St. Florian in Austria, Biggs sounded out Landon on sources of that composer’s music: “Already I have a number of pieces (none of them particularly good, incidentally) but I’d like to find more.” Apparently he never did, for the project was eventually shelved. Meanwhile, Biggs had earned a few years’ respite from European recording tours, and, as it turned out, there was plenty of work to occupy him at home.