Notes and Editorial Reviews
I cannot imagine a better place to start to get to know the French organ repertoire... Lovers of the genre should place their orders at once.
The CD opens with a display piece which is much more than just display: the whole disc might well have been devised to demonstrate that there is much more to the great French organ tradition than just a mighty sound. Much of the music is quiet and reflective and the bravura works, like this Tournemire improvisation, have more to offer than glorious sound.
This is one of the improvisations which Tournemire recorded and which were subsequently transcribed by Duruflé. Tournemire insisted that improvisations could not and should not be recaptured but this
Improvisation on the Te Deum is a fine piece, worthy of preservation. The CD notes attribute this work to L’Orgue mystique, a cycle of 51 pieces on Gregorian themes for the major festivals of the liturgical year but, whereas that work consists of improvisation-like pieces which Tournemire actually wrote down, the Te Deum improvisation was not written down until Duruflé’s labour of love in transcribing it 28 years later.
Duruflé’s transcription in Ian Tracey’s hands almost persuades one that one is hearing the actual process of improvisation, yet at the same time the playing is totally assured. The Liverpool organ may not be a Cavaillé-Coll, but it is a fine instrument.
Only careful listening identifies the plainsong tune of the Te Deum but that is part of the art of composing such pieces. Bach sometimes buries his chorale melodies fairly deeply in his preludes and Duruflé’s own music based on plainsong themes sometimes requires a deal of detective work. Try his Four motets on Gregorian themes, coupled with his own performance of his gorgeous, Fauré-inspired Requiem and his Mass Cum jubilo on Apex 2564 61139 2, a budget-price distillation of two Erato CDs which have long been in my collection.
The two short pieces by Bonnet which follow are fairly insubstantial but they make an excellent bridge between the display of the Tournemire and the Saint-Saëns improvisation, itself an exercise in virtuosity which receives a glorious free-wheeling performance from Tracey. There is very little Saint-Saëns organ music in the record catalogues; a performance like this reminds us that there is much more to him than The Carnival of the Animals, as I have pointed out in my recent review of two of his Piano Concertos. (Jean-Yves Thibaudet with the OSR under Charles Dutoit on Decca 475 8764).
The title of Franck’s Grande Pièce Symphonique, which is used as the generic name of the CD as a whole, implies employment of the big guns but, in fact, the dominant mood of this piece is restrained, with frequent markings of dolce, pp and even ppp. The opening andante serioso is subdued and reflective: Tracey captures the serioso mood here as well as the mood of the succeeding allegro section, faster but still no troppo e maestoso. The notes in the booklet compare the opening section to a processional but I was put more in mind of a hushed and expectant congregation awaiting the start of Vespers.
In the quiet and reflective andante opening of the second movement, too, the image conjured up is of the preparation for an important service – a role which Tracey, in his capacity at Liverpool Cathedral, will have performed many times. He captures all these quiet passages extremely effectively, especially in those sections marked cantando, and the recording registers every detail, with individual manual- and pedal-parts coming over very clearly. The Liverpool reverberation is kept to a minimum.
The finale also opens pp, but with a hint of a storm to come. When those bigger guns finally arrive, in the wonderful fugue and the concluding outburst of joy, they are all the more effective for having been kept so long in reserve – and for Franck’s retaining a considerable degree of restraint even when they do fire. This is certainly not a showpiece for the sake of mere show and Tracey shows admirable restraint where a lesser organist might well have gone overboard. These grander moments are also very well captured by the engineers, even in normal stereo. One is again aware of the resonance of the building without its ever interfering with the clarity of the recording.
Those seeking to expand their knowledge of Franck’s organ music will inevitably reduplicate the Grande pièce, albeit at bargain price and on French organs. Either Jennifer Bate on the Beauvais organ (Regis RRC2054) or Marie-Claire Alain on the Cavaillé-Coll organ at Caen (Apex 2564 61428 2) will do very nicely. Both are 2-CD sets selling for around £9 in the UK.
The Gigout Scherzo provides a lighter, capricious moment before the Widor: delicacy of touch is paramount here and this Tracey very ably provides.
The Widor Symphony is not the one with the Toccata: that is No.5, already recorded in full by Tracey on CHAN9271. Listeners may welcome the chance to get away from that ubiquitous piece and at the same time hear another of his symphonies in its entirety: the Fourth Symphony is as good a piece as any to choose. Don’t expect these works, despite their title, to sound too symphonic: they are more like a suite than a symphony. Again Tracey’s chief rival in this work is Marie-Claire Alain’s authoritative account on the Cavaillé-Coll organ at Saint Germain (Warner Elatus 2564 60341 2, at mid-price).
Franck left his big guns till the end of his Grande Pièce; the Widor Symphony does the opposite, starting with a fff marking at the beginning of the opening Toccata. This is a big movement – by definition a Toccata is designed to show off the player’s expertise in ‘touching’ the keys. (From Italian toccare, to touch.) Tracey makes the Toccata sound big without being entirely overwhelming and without setting off too much reverberation: if anything, I might have wanted him to sound just a little more ferocious. The Fugue begins quietly with the 16’ pedal tone which the score calls for held in restraint; the effect is ethereal.
The third movement, marked dolce, opens even more ethereally, with the pp organ barely audible. This is the best-known movement, often played as a separate piece. The booklet compares it to Daquin’s Noëls but, having recently reviewed an excellent Hyperion Helios reissue of the Noëls (CDH 55319) I have to say that the relationship is a distant one apart from the cantabile nature of the music, excellently captured by Tracey. The central section, written in four staves – i.e. with two sets of pedal parts – is fiendishly difficult but Tracey, with art that conceals art, makes it sound effortless.
The Scherzo and Adagio are again gentle movements, the pp opening of each setting the tone. The mood of the Adagio anticipates that of Fauré’s Requiem by twenty-one years. Tracey’s nimble playing in the Scherzo, his lighter touch in the Adagio and the recording are once more absolutely first class.
It is a mark of a fine recording not only that it captures the loudest moments without distortion but that it makes an equally good job of registering music on the threshold of hearing. The Chandos engineers score in both respects on this CD – just don’t try to play it in the car: the volume required for the quieter movements to register would place you in the head-bangers’ league in the louder movements.
The Finale begins fff, a marking which recurs at several points in the movement. The big guns are unleashed at the start but Widor is careful again not to make the effect too overwhelming and Tracey’s playing contributes to the comparative restraint, especially in the central part of this movement. The closing bars bring a confident conclusion to the work, confidently executed.
I have already indicated that the recording is first-class even in stereo. In SACD surround-format I am sure that the ambience of Liverpool Cathedral is perfectly captured, albeit without too much of the reverberation of this building.
I’m going for broke and nominating this my Recording of the Month. I cannot imagine a better place to start to get to know the French organ repertoire – unless it should be one of Ian Tracey’s other recordings in this series. Lovers of the genre should place their orders at once.
-- Brian Wilson, MusicWeb International
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