Notes and Editorial Reviews
An irresistible CD of organ music based on traditional French Christmas tunes, excellently performed and recorded. Another winning and generous reissue on the bargain Helios label.
With the simultaneous reissue of these Daquin Noëls¸ Britten’s A Boy was born (CDH55307) and Schütz’s Christmas Story (CDH55310), Hyperion clearly have the Christmas market in mind.
I have to admit to a personal failure to engage with A Boy was born and Rejoice in the Lamb, the two principal items on the Britten CD – neither work a patch on the wonderful Ceremony of Carols.
The King’s Consort version of the Schütz stands up well to strong competition from the mid-price Parrott version on Virgin
Veritas and the bargain-price Summerly version on Naxos, not least for the Hyperion coupling of Christmas Motets by Giovanni Gabrieli.
The Daquin is even more recommendable since it faces very little competition and its reissue at bargain price is, therefore, the more generous. There is a version on Festivo, played by Denis Fremin and another on Linn, performed by a Chamber Choir and Orchestra, both at full price. A mid-price collection on Harmonia Mundi (HMX297 1899) contains Christmas pieces by Bach, Daquin, Balbastre and Zipoli. In 2002 my colleague Jonathan Woolf recommended a K617 CD of Christmas music by Bach, Balbastre, Bull, Buxtehude and Daquin; I am not sure, however, if this disc is still available in the UK.
Long before the Victorians reinvented Christmas, the French maintained a long-standing tradition of seasonal music, known as Noëls from the Old-French word for (good) news (modern French nouvelles). In the sense of Christmas greetings, the word had entered English at least by the fourteenth century: in the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the court of King Arthur celebrates the New Year with the greeting ‘Nowel’:
Loude crye watz þer kest of clerkez and oþer, Nowel nayted onewe, neuened ful ofte. (There were loud cries sent up by clerics and others, Christmas greetings repeated, named very often.)
By Daquin’s time the word Noël had come to mean both Christmas itself and what we call carols in English – a word originally signifying a round-dance in Old French and Middle English. Noëls were instantly recognisable tunes which got listeners into the festive spirit, especially at the Midnight Mass of the Nativity – either played as organ voluntaries before, during and after the Mass, or used to set the words of the Ordinary of the Mass: Kyrie, Gloria, etc.
Charpentier’s well-known Christmas Mass belongs to this latter category: my recommendation for this work, for anyone wishing to purchase it for Christmas, is the King’s College Choir version under Willcocks, coupled with the Ledger version of the Te Deum at budget price on EMI Encore 5 74726 2 – an inauthentic version which I, as a lover of authenticity in Baroque music should not be recommending, except for the fact that the performance is so joyful. If you prefer greater authenticity, Mallon’s Naxos version is recommendable (8.557229 - see reviews) and may lead you to explore further with Mallon’s two other CDs of Charpentier’s Christmas music (Naxos 8.554514 and 8.557036) and, perhaps, some of the other fine Naxos CDs of Charpentier.
Those familiar with the Charpentier Mass will recognise many of the same tunes on the Daquin CD: track 10, for example, Noël Grand jeu et Duo, employs the tune used by Charpentier in his Kyrie – Quand Dieu naquit à Noël.
The tradition of composing instrumental Noëls dates back to the time of Nicolas Lebègue (1631-1702), some 60 years before this Daquin collection. His compositions, inspired by the rich vein of French Christmas folk-music of the previous centuries began the fashion for ‘variations sur des air populaires’, a tradition continued by Pierre Dandrieu (1660-1733) and his nephew Jean-François (1682-1738). These, together with Daquin and Claude Balbastre (1727-99), were the most famous composers of such pieces.
This Daquin Op.2 collection is described as a new book of Noëls, not because he had produced an earlier collection but as an acknowledgement that Lebègue and the Dandrieus had preceded him in this genre. There may also be an intended pun on nouveaux/noëls. These are, in fact, his only organ pieces to have survived.
There used to be an Erato CD collecting all five well-known composers of Noëls, performed by Marie-Claire Alain on a period organ. (Formerly 2292-45455-2). Were Warner to reissue this on the Apex label, it would offer an excellent means of comparison. Alain includes five of the Daquin pieces, numbers 10, 11, 12, 9 and 6. Her tempi are generally faster than Herrick’s (6:14 for No.11, for example, against his 6:54) though, as so often, timings alone tell only part of the story. Heard in their own context, there is no sense that Herrick is too slow in any of these pieces – just the reverse. In fact, his performance of the final piece, No.12, positively skips along at 4:10 compared to Alain’s 4:28: Alain sounds rather arthritic by comparison in this Noël Suisse, probably the best-known piece in the collection. In compensation, she varies the registration more and makes the piece sound more dramatic than Herrick but it is his rhythmic swagger that makes the more lasting impression.
Alain performs on the Cathedral organ at Albi, a 1736 instrument rebuilt in 1981. Herrick also uses a period instrument, the organ of St Rémy, Dieppe, built by Parizot (1736-9) and, though tinkered with at various times, rebuilt in substantially original form in 1992. Both CDs contain helpful specifications of the organs – the Hyperion, unusually, featuring as the inlay behind the transparent CD tray where it is partly obscured by the central rose. The Hyperion booklet specifies which stops were new in 1992; the new stops for the Albi organ are not specified, nor is the actual registration employed by either organist for individual pieces. Be that as it may, it is clear that neither player employs registration which would have been out of place in Daquin’s time: I don’t, for example, hear Herrick using the recently-added 16’ pedal soubasse. Despite the many rebuilds specified in the booklet, the organ retains its original character at the hands of organists like Herrick who are prepared to limit their registration to 18th-century practice.
In fact, many of these pieces specify some of the registration requirements. No.1 is described as Noël sur les jeux d’Anches sans tremblant (on the reed stops, without tremulant), warning the organist not to spoil the effect by using tremolo, an injunction repeated for Nos.4, 6 and 8. (The Dieppe organ has two tremulants, termed doux and fort; the temptation would be for the organist to over-egg the emotional pudding by over-use of these stops – the eager expectation of the congregation increased by the use of a tremolo effect.) The registration for No.7 is even more clearly specified, the title even telling the organist which hand and manual to use: Noël en Trio et en Dialogue, le Cornet de Récit de la main droite, la Tierce du Positif de la main gauche. (Trio and duo, in the right hand the Cornet swell organ, in the left hand the Tierce of the positive.) This reference to organ registration, even in the titles, means that the alternative … et le clavecin on the title page of the collection, reproduced on p.10 of the booklet, was a piece of misleading advertising: the pieces are hardly suited to the harpsichord or clavichord.
The scores of all twelve Noëls are available online at icking, some of them in both original and modern notation. The same web-page also contains a link to a helpful article about French organs. The original scores specify which sections are to be played on the positive or choir keyboard, which to be played with the left hand selecting Grand Jeu (a very bright-sounding combination of stops); which with both hands Grand Jeu and where a particular stop is required, such as the Crumhorn or the Cornet de Récit (Cornet swell) or the Trumpet pedal stop. Modern editions merely tidy up the notation and add a few extra notes on registration, such as the 16’ Bombarde pedal-stop.
The notes comment on the fine acoustic of the Dieppe church; this, together with Hyperion’s fine recording, is one of the reasons to praise this excellent reissue. I understand that the recording was not made under ideal circumstances; if this is so, the finished CD bears no indication of any difficulties. The notes themselves are, as usual from this source, fully the equal of most full-price issues: no sense that bargain price means cutting corners.
If Daquin is anything more than a name to most music-lovers, it is due to the popularity of his cuckoo-imitation, le coucou; a recording of this on the Hyperion Helios label in a Livia Rev recital For Children, was strongly recommended by my colleague Göran Forsling (CDH55194 – sadly, on the dreaded piano: I much prefer music written for the harpsichord to be played on the proper instrument.) Daquin was a virtuoso performer, preferred even to his more famous contemporary Rameau for the post of organist at St Paul in Paris; later he was the royal organist and titular organist of Notre Dame. Virtuoso though he was, his own playing is hardly likely to have bettered these Herrick performances.
Daquin was especially noted for his ability to extemporise, which is probably how these works originated – written-down versions of improvisations employing breath-taking variations. In Herrick’s performances one almost imagines the composer himself making the music up as he goes along. If a series of twelve such pieces sounds likely to be monotonous, in practice they are very varied – and Herrick’s playing is alive to all the variety.
When this CD first appeared, one reviewer found Herrick’s use of ornamentation occasionally too fussy, not an opinion which I share. What I do share is his assertion that this is marvellously energetic playing, contributing to an overall sense of fun. Other than this small reservation from one reviewer, I don’t recall any adverse reviews of the original issue and I greet its reappearance very positively. You may not wish to play all twelve Noëls in one go, even on Christmas Day, but I guarantee that all but the most puritanical Christmas-hater will find it irresistible.
The October releases were not yet listed on the Hyperion web-site when I wrote this review, so I don’t know which track they have chosen to represent the disc. Whichever it is, don’t try listening to it unless you are prepared to be hooked by it.
This CD, the Britten and the Schütz reinforce Hyperion’s representation in the budget-price Christmas music stakes. They already had the appropriately numbered NOEL1 – Christmas through the Ages, containing one of these Daquin Noëls – and NOEL2 – A Christmas Present from Polyphony. A disc of instrumental music by Telemann, Purcell, etc., entitled Baroque Christmas Music is on Helios CDH55048 and Corelli’s Christmas Concerto is on a two-for-the-price-of-one recording of all the Op.6 Concertos on Hyperion Dyad CDD22011, one of the most recommendable versions of that set.
-- Brian Wilson, MusicWeb International
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