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Barber: Toccata Festiva; Boellmann, Widor, Gigout / Ferey, Ledroit

Release Date: 05/12/2009 
Label:  Skarbo   Catalog #: 4078   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Samuel BarberLéon BoëllmannCharles-Marie WidorEugene Gigout
Performer:  Frederic LedroitJean-Pierre Ferey
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 1 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

TOCCATA FESTIVA Jean-Pierre Ferey (pn); Frédéric Ledroit (org, hrm) SKARBO DSK 4078 (61:08)

BARBER Toccata Festiva. BOËLLMANN Scènes du Moyen Âge. WIDOR 6 Duos pour harmonium et piano. GIGOUT Pièces pour harmonium et piano: Contemplation; Read more class="ARIAL12b">Tempo di Marcia; Berceuse

Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festiva for organ and orchestra presents the best of him. It is variously brilliantly virtuosic and deeply meditative, and speaks—more to the point, sings—in his disarmingly melodic language. It was composed in 1960 (six years before the debacle of his opera Anthony and Cleopatra ) as a result of a commission by Mary Curtis Bok Zimbalist for the inauguration of the new organ she had just donated to the Philadelphia Academy of Music, the old pre-Kimmel Art Center performing venue of the Philadelphia Orchestra. This is the only composition for organ from Barber I know of. He had, however, studied the instrument back in his Curtis Institute student days and had actually performed on it regularly as the organist of a local Philadelphia parish. By the evidence of this piece, he certainly knew his way around the possibilities of the instrument. In order to give the piece greater currency, he produced this version for piano and organ shortly after the performance and publication of the orchestral original.

Knowing this piece from Thomas Trotter’s and Marin Alsop’s idiomatic and quite satisfying performance of the original score on Naxos 8.559134, I approached this piano reduction of the orchestration with trepidation. Barber was a supremely gifted orchestrator, and in the original score the organ and the robust and kaleidoscopic orchestra are presented as equals. Reducing the orchestra to a mere piano presents incredible balance, not to mention coloristic, problems. I thought, this will never work. But then, the bumblebee, given our current knowledge of aerodynamics, should be unable to fly. That this version works as fine as it does is testament to Barber’s skill as arranger and of Jean-Pierre Ferey’s and Frédéric Ledroit’s ability to capture Barber’s quintessentially American idiom.

The rest of this offering takes one into 19th-century French territory via pieces that are far more modest than Barber’s, but, in their own ways, equally fine. The short-lived Léon Boëllmann (1862–97) was a student and protégé of both Eugène Gigout and Gustave Lefèvre. In 1885 he married Lefèvre’s daughter and Gigout’s niece, Louise. Then, as now, the music business was indeed a small and intertwined world. In his time the socially gifted Boëllmann was highly regarded as a master of organ and organ improvisation as well as a gifted teacher and keen and penetrating musical critic. This performance of his enchanting Scenes from the Middle Ages , presented via a transcription for piano and organ by one of the performers here, Jean-Pierre Ferey, of what is left of the original orchestral score, takes the listener, in its affective directness and user-friendliness, into realms similarly explored by a host of Russian composers including Rimsky-Korsakov in many of his operas, which, on this side of the pond, are still largely unknown. Here, however, the musical accent is decidedly French.

The Widor pieces were revelatory. I have known this composer mainly from his 10 grandly sprawling and comparatively titanic organ symphonies. In these Six Duos for Harmonium and Piano, he is in a far more relaxed mode as he exploits this modest instrumental combination for all its domestically intimate worth. It is not too much of a stretch to claim that, given his catchy tunefulness as demonstrated in these tiny musical gems, Widor, that consummate musical conservative who venerated both Franck and Saint-Saëns, influenced the songs of, among others, Satie, Hahn, and Poulenc. Or, perhaps, given the chronologies involved, it might have been the other way around.

The post-Romantic Eugène Gigout’s (1844–1925) pieces for harmonium and piano, especially the first, titled Contemplation , occasionally breathe the same air as the early salonesque piano music of Debussy, while at the same time looking back to such 19th-century giants as Gounod and Delibes. It is all part of a grand French continuum that led to the diverse musics of Duruflé, Messiaen, and Boulez.

My take-away here is that there should be no barrier between music that is targeted toward the vast concert hall with all its exclusive class-oriented trappings, and that which is targeted toward simple home consumption. Put in other terms, the French masters on this release saw little or no demarcation between “serious” music and that which is designed to be popular—an ideal not lost to Les Six.

The performances by both Ferey and Ledroit go right to the nerve centers of the music. Their choice of a baby grand piano after the Barber piece shows their sensitivity to both timbre and scale.

The recording is fine in all registers, and conveys a vivid sense of the room tone. The harmonium used is a venerable antique—Harmonium Alexander, Paris, 1865. The organ in the Barber and Boëllman pieces is of the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre d’Angoulême, restored in 1965 under the direction of Maurice Duruflé. Full specs are provided.

In sum, Ferey and Ledroit’s performance of the Barber makes this release highly recommended. Their performances of everything following it elevates it to the status of essential.

FANFARE: William Zagorski
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Works on This Recording

Toccata festiva for Organ and Orchestra, Op. 36 by Samuel Barber
Performer:  Frederic Ledroit (Organ), Jean-Pierre Ferey (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1960; USA 
Scènes du moyen âge by Léon Boëllmann
Performer:  Frederic Ledroit (Organ), Jean-Pierre Ferey (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Duos (6) for Piano and Harmonium by Charles-Marie Widor
Performer:  Jean-Pierre Ferey (Piano), Frederic Ledroit (Harmonium)
Period: Romantic 
Written: by 1891; France 
Pièces for Piano and Harmonium by Eugene Gigout
Performer:  Frederic Ledroit (Organ), Jean-Pierre Ferey (Piano)
Period: Romantic 

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