This superb retrospective of French (and Belgian) organ music opens with Alexandre Guilmant’s Grand Choeur in D. It is subtitled ‘alla Haendel’ and certainly bounces along. Bearing in mind that it was completed in the French town of Boulogne-sur-Mer it could be subtitled ‘Handel by the Seaside’, in a humorous nod to Percy Grainger.
Louis Vierne’s ‘Carillon de Westminster’ needs no introduction. It is the sixth piece in the third of Vierne’s four-suite set 24 pieces de fantaisie, published in 1927. The Carillon must be one of the most popular pieces of the composer’s music, along with the ubiquitous Berceuse (which even I can play) and a few overworked ‘finales’… This is one of the great war-horses of the organist’s repertoire. Vierne’s other ‘Carillons’ are worth digging out, including that of ‘Longport’ and ‘Les cloches de Hinckley.’
The ‘Feux Follets’ was published in the second suite of the 24 pieces de fantaisie. This is an impressionistic little piece, difficult and quite wayward. The liner notes point out that it often seems to be about to ‘find’ a tune, only for this to vanish, like a Will o’ the Wisp. It is magically played here.
I have never taken to Camille Saint-Saëns Rhapsodie No. 3 for organ. From my first hearing of this work back in the early 1970s, l thought that it grinds along without getting anywhere: it seems to me to lack structure. Others will naturally disagree. The composer makes use of Breton folk tunes to point up the work’s programme which was derived from a pilgrimage to the Pardon de St-Anne-de-Palaud. I concede that there is some imaginative organ writing in these pages, but somehow it just does not do it for me.
Theodore Dubois’s ‘Toccata’ is one of those big French Toccatas that never fails to please. The work is in ternary form with a quiet restrained middle section surrounded by a bustling ‘moto perpetuo’ where the focus of interest is in the swift passages for the manuals. It is the third piece from the composer’s Douze Pièces published in 1886. Despite the composer having a Cavaille-Coll organ at the back of his mind when he wrote this ‘Toccata’, it works perfectly well on Coventry Cathedral’s Harrison and Harrison instrument.
I was quite taken by Henri Mulet’s ‘Rosace’. I have never knowingly heard this piece before. As a child, Mulet had witnessed the building of Sacré Coeur in Paris from his home in Montmartre. In fact, his father was onetime choirmaster at that iconic church. In 1920, Mulet composed the Esquisses Byzantines which were a series of impressions depicting various aspects of the building. The present work, ‘Rosace’ is a ‘dreamlike response’ to the kaleidoscopic patterns of the gorgeous rose window, which represents the ‘Sacred Heart.’
Most organ music enthusiasts know the ‘big’ works by Maurice Duruflé: the Prelude and Fugue sur le nom d’Alain, op.7, the Suite for organ, op.5 and the Prelude, Adagio and Chorale Variations on ‘Veni Creator’, op.4. I guess fewer will know the present piece, ‘Chant Donné’ (1949). This began life as a harmony exercise published in 64 Leçons d'Harmonie, offertes en hommage à Jean Gallon. Gallon had taught several illustrious musicians between 1919 and 1948, including Olivier Messiaen, Henri Dutilleux and Paul Tortelier. It is hard to know if Duruflé had the organ in mind when he wrote this piece. The holograph was written on two staves, but when published it was in four-part ‘open score’ printed in antique notation
It has subsequently been arranged and published for organ. This quiet piece is infused with Gregorian chant and modal harmonies: it is quite simply gorgeous.
Olivier Messiaen’s Le Banquet Celeste is a great introduction to his organ music. There is nothing here to frighten the timid! It is an early work, dating from 1925. The ‘programme’ is a mediation on Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. It is not necessary to bear theological concepts in mind whilst enjoying this deeply reflective music. The one feature that will grasp the listener is the timelessness of the music. Despite being only six minutes long, it seems to last forever: and we (at least some of us!) do want it to last for ever. This bending of time would become one of Messiaen’s most beguiling traits.
Joseph Jongen’s Sonata Eroica is his masterpiece. It would be easy to describe Jongen’s musical style as a compendium of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century music ranging from Franz Liszt to Olivier Messiaen by way of Claude Debussy, Richard Strauss, Paul Dukas and Igor Stravinsky. However, this description does not do justice to this highly-developed score. This is a sonata in name only. It would be better to describe it as a set of variations based on what may be an Ardennes folk-tune, preceded by a powerful introduction and concluding with a fugato and carillon-like coda.
The Sonata was commissioned by Belgium Radio in 1930 for the opening recital of the new organ in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels: it is dedicated to Joseph Bonnet, onetime organist at St Eustache’s Church in Paris. I enjoyed this performance from end to end.
I have not heard Guy Weitz’s massive Symphony No.1 for organ before. Weitz was born in Belgium, studied with Alexandre Guilmant and Vincent d’Indy in Paris and arrived in England as a refugee at the outbreak of the Great War. He was appointed organist at the Jesuit Church in Farm Street, Mayfair, where he remained until 1967. Musically, Weitz’s music has echoes Widor, Vierne and Dupre. His native composers did provide influence too: Cesar Franck, Paul de Maleingreau and to a lesser extent, Flor Peeters. The liner notes explain that the Symphony No. 1 was composed in 1930 and takes it musical material from the plainsong chants associated with ‘Mary the Mother of God.’ The first movement, a massive song of praise, derived from the ‘Ave Maria.’ The middle movement takes its subject matter from the ‘Stabat Mater’, where Our Lady is kneeling at the foot of Jesus’ cross. This music is characterised by sadness, reflection and anguish. The finale is based on the plainsong hymn ‘Ave Maris Stella’, Hail Mary, Star of the Sea. It is really a classic ‘French’ style toccata that brings the Symphony to an impressive conclusion. This work can be enjoyed without its Christian underpinnings: it is a great work that deserves to be in the repertoire of all concert organists.
The text of the booklet, written by Ian Wells is excellent, with detailed and readable notes about each work and their composers. The notes are in printed in English, French and German. There is the all-essential specification of the large four-manual Harrison and Harrison organ, with the briefest of historical notes. For the curious, it was installed in 1962 at the time of the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral. Alas, there is no overall photograph of the organ, (there is a tiny picture of the present organist and some organ stops, which is not Coventry) and no biographical details of the organist. For this information, the listener needs to visit the Impulse Music webpage. At present, David Patrick is based in Exeter.
The sound quality of this CD is splendid. The organ sounds fantastic and the playing of all these works is exemplary.
This is a fine exploration of French and Belgian organ music that features old favourites and, for some of us, new discoveries. It is thoroughly enjoyable from end to end.
Alexandre GUILMANT (1837-1911) Grand Choeur in D (c.1886)
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937) Feux Follets, Carillon de Westminster from 24 pieces de fantaisie (1926-7)
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921) Rhapsodie no.3 (1866)
Théodore DUBOIS (1837-1924) Toccata in G (1886)
Henri MULET (1878-1967) Rosace, from Esquisses Byzantines (1920)
Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986) Chant Donné (1949)
Joseph JONGEN (1872-1953) Sonata Eroica, op.94 (c.1930)
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-92) Le Banquet Céleste (1928)
Guy WEITZ (1883-1970) Symphony No.1 (1930)
David M Patrick (organ)
Rec. Coventry Cathedral 27 April, 2017; 1 May, 17 July 2015
GUILD GMCD 7801
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.