One day, in April 1979, I was listening to an organist practising on the Cavaillé-Coll organ in Notre Dame, Paris: the music sounded superb. I asked a fellow listener (an Englishman) what was playing, and he told me that is was Jeanne Demessieux’s Te Deum, op.1. It was a masterpiece, which I have not heard as often as I would have liked over the past 40 years. Despite the work being a near perfect ‘fit’ for this prodigious Parisian organ, it was composed with the Ernest M. Skinner instrument in St John the Divine, New York in her mind.
The entire piece is based a Gregorian chant used for the Te Deum. The work is presented in three segments. A quieter almost impressionistic middle section is flanked by two extrovert, rhythmically-complex and technically-demanding toccata-like movements. This is a work to bring the house down. It would make an ideal recessional voluntary after a service of Choral Matins, preferably with a very large cathedral organ!
Listeners usually associate Nadia Boulanger with teaching music. Her famous pupils include such diverse composers as Elliot Carter, Lennox Berkeley, Astor Piazzolla and Burt Bacharach. Yet, she was also a composer, with several attractive works to her name. Granted, most of her catalogue is devoted to vocal music, there are a handful of instrumental works, and a few orchestral pieces. The present dreamy ‘Improvisation’ is from her ‘Trois Pièces’ for organ or harmonium composed around 1911. This is a hushed work that showcases several stops on this Mander organ, especially the ‘voix-celeste.’
I have not consciously heard any organ music by Jacques Ibert. Alas, he is usually recalled only for his delightfully witty Divertimento for orchestra. Other important works include the sparkling Escales, the romantic, dancing Tropismes pour des amours imaginaires and the Concertino da camera for Alto Saxophone and Eleven Instruments. Ibert wrote precious little for the organ. The present ‘Fugue’ is the third of ‘Trio Pièces’ dating from 1920. Organ enthusiasts will appreciate that this piece is inspired by César Franck. The ‘Fugue’ begins quietly before building up to a huge climax supported by considerable chromatic harmonies and melodies. It is dedicated ‘à Mademoiselle Nadia Boulanger.’
Every organ enthusiast knows Jehan Alain’s Litanies. There are 27 recordings of this work currently in the Arkiv CD catalogue. However, looking at Jehan Stefan’s list of Alain’s compositions reveals more than 140 works. Few have entered the repertoire, and several appear unrecorded.
Alain died in battle at Saumur in the Loire Valley during the summer of 1940, aged only 29. He is a French war hero. If Alain had survived, his contribution to French music would have been gigantic, perhaps even rivalling Messiaen as the ‘greatest’ organ composer of the 20th century. The clue to his success is the clever synthesis of styles that he created. In his music the listener will experience allusions to ‘Gregorian chant’, jazz rhythms, the ‘exotic tonalities and complex rhythms of Moroccan and Indian music’, as well as a solid grounding in the whole corpus of French organ music.
The present Variations sur un thème de Clément Jannequin is based on a folk tune found in a book of old French songs. The theme is by an anonymous sixteenth century composer and not by Clément Jannequin. The song, ‘Jannequin. It is composed in three sections, mirroring early French practice. The opening section presents the tune in a simple manner initially with the harmonies of the original and then contrived in a more acerbic mood. The middle section is a short fugato passage which is followed by a reprise of the tune subjected to several chromatic changes. Altogether, a lovely piece that demands to be played with ‘freshness and tenderness.’
Andre Isoir wrote only one original organ work, the Six Variations sur un Psaume Huguenot, op.1 (1974). It was written in response to a composition contest run by the ‘Friends of the Organ’ and it won First Prize. The jury included Olivier Messiaen and Henry Barraud. The piece was published in 1979 and subsequently revised in 2009.
In his Six Variations, Isoir balances an engaging modernism supported by organ registrations common in the French Baroque era. This is a colourful work that explores a wide variety of timbres and moods and concludes with a vibrant ‘toccata.’
Much of Isoir’s career was spent as an organist with a deep interest in J.S. Bach. He was involved with the restoration and new-builds of period organs. Isoir has made more than 60 recordings of organ music.
The Pièces de Fantasie, Deuxième Suite, op.53 is popular and needs little introduction to organ enthusiasts. In all, there are four suites, which included 24 separate pieces. They were composed between 1926-27. Several have become extremely popular, including ‘Les Cloches de Hinkley’, ‘Carillon de Westminster’ and ‘Naïades.’ The Second Suite features six pieces: ‘Lamento’, ‘Sicilienne’, ‘Hymne au soleil’, ‘Feux Follets’, ‘Clair de Lune’ and ‘Toccata’. The liner notes provide a good overview of these pieces. My two favourites are ‘Feux Follet’ and the ‘Toccata.’ The former is a scherzo-like, ‘will o’ the wisp’ piece that is impressionistic in temper and not lacking in musical humour. It is chock-full of ‘bizarre rhythms’, imaginative registrations and technically-demanding manual changes. The final number in this Deuxième Suite and the last track on the CD is the stunning ‘Toccata.’ This is a perpetuum mobile that is unrelenting in its perusal of semiquaver figuration. The work builds up to a shattering climax with all the stops pulled out. An excellent conclusion to a fascinating CD. It is just a shame that this ‘Toccata’ does not seem to have gained the traction of a certain piece by a gentleman called Widor.
The booklet notes (French and English), written by Renée Anne Louprette and are straightforward and helpful: they include the all-important organ specification of this superb four-manual and pedals, Noel Mander instrument.
The organ was installed in 1993 and is currently the largest ‘tracker action’ (purely mechanical) instrument in New York City. The acoustic is judged to be ideal and this is reflected in the great recording of these pieces on this CD. Details of the can be found on her webpage.
This is a great introduction to some lesser-known French organ works. They are splendidly played by the soloist who shows great understanding and empathy with the genre.
Jeanne DEMESSIEUX (1921-68) Te Deum, op.1 (1958)
Nadia BOULANGER (187-1979) Trois Pièces pour orgue ou harmonium (1911) No.2 ‘Improvisation’
Jacques IBERT (1890-1962) Trois Pièces, No.3 ‘Fugue’ (1920)
Jehan ALAIN (1911-40) Variations sur un thème de Clément Jannequin (1937)
André ISOIR (1935-2016) Six Variations sur un Psaume Huguenot, op.1 (1974)
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937) Pièces de Fantasie, Deuxième Suite, op.53 (1926/27)
Renée Anne Louprette (organ)
Rec. The Church of St Ignatius Loyola New York, New York, USA 2-4 November 2016
ACIS APL 01609
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published