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Marcel DUPRÉ (1886-1971)
Works for Organ: Volume 13

Zephyrs Improvisation reconstructed by Rollin Smith;
Six Antiennes pour le temps de Noel Op. 48 (1952);
From ‘Seventy-Nine Chorales’ Op. 28, Nos. 21, 22, 23, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 66;
Visions Op. 44 (1948);
Organ Symphony No. 2 Op. 28 (1929)
George Baker (organ)
Organ of the Perkins Chapel, School of Theology, Southern Methodist University Dallas, Texas
NAXOS 8.554542 [67.29]


This disc comes in Naxos’s burgeoning series ‘The Organ Encyclopedia’. Each recording is performed by a different organist on a different organ. The complete recording of Dupré’s organ works has been under way now for almost a decade.

Dupré was born in Rouen in 1886 and became organist at the great church of St. Sulpice where he replaced Widor; a significant point this to which I shall return. He was known primarily, especially in his early days, as an outstanding performer, secondly as an extraordinarily gifted improviser and only thirdly as a composer, although it is the latter skill which now has more meaning for us.

Improvisation is the key to ‘Zephyrs’ which is the first piece on this CD. As with Bach and the Goldberg variations this five minute piece came about as an improvisation on a theme. The theme was given to Dupré by no less a personality than Leopold Stokowski and the moment was captured on tape [no date given in the booklet]. It is a superbly constructed little piece, including a short fugue. What incredibly painstaking patience and skill has gone into its reconstruction by Rollin Smith. Was it worth it? Certainly yes. This is a rare opportunity to hear what these Dupré improvisations were like after Mass way back in the 1920s and 1930s. This is a skill which although not non-existent is fast dying out. Oddly enough this piece sounds nothing like anything else on the CD and as I am new to this series I cannot say if it is unique in Dupré’s vast output. It is, in any event, a very attractive start to this nicely balanced and well constructed programme.

The two major works here, the 2nd Symphony and ‘Visions’, are the reasons for investing in this recording. Let me say immediately how wonderfully played they are. George Baker, himself a composer, is so impressive and has a real insight into this rarely encountered music. His biography is given in the booklet.

The accompanying note by the prolific Keith Anderson tells us that the 2nd Symphony’s first movement reaches "a massively orchestrated finale". An important points this. One might ask: ‘what is the difference between an organ sonata and an organ symphony?’ No, this is not a conundrum. Dupré inherited the mantle of Widor the organ symphonist par excellence. From him he learnt that the organ symphony must be ‘orchestrated’. Subjects must be contrasted with registrations clearly different to allow the material to be shown in its best light. Ideas will be coloured more carefully and the material itself is more dramatic and powerful. If these premises are accepted then this work has every right to be called a ‘symphony’. The opening Allegro Agitato is especially orchestral. I myself felt the itch to get the music and immediately score it for large orchestra. It is an impressive work although the third movement is possibly a little too light-weight at times. Certainly its ‘chugging’ start is a surprise. It does however build towards an impressive ending.

At the back of the booklet Naxos provide the specification for the organ. It is obviously a massive instrument with a large choice of stops especially on the pedal board. There are also what are called ‘accessories’ like a transposer and a piston sequencer. The front of the booklet has a Parisian Virgin and child sculptor. These bear little relevance to the music.

For anyone interested in organ design there is no picture of the organ. This is a pity. I went onto the website of the Southern University of Dallas but failed to find a photograph there. If anyone can help me it would be most welcome. Such a photograph would be particularly illuminating with regard to the marvellous and extraordinary ‘Vision’ Op. 44. This highly original work dates from 1948. It is another wonderfully evocative and superbly ‘orchestrated’ work. Its sub-title ‘And the light shines in the darkness’ reflects the ‘plot’ of the piece: Dupré begins with curious deeply low rumblings in the pedal. These create an almost childlike picture of Grieg’s trolls emerging from their subterranean hovels. These noises crystallize into an accompaniment supporting a weird tune on the reeds, before disappearing into an aimless musical void of meanderings and practically atonal polyphony. Gradually cascades of notes begin to appear so that at approximately 10’30" the first climax is achieved with a sort of chorale in the pedal and what is now toccata-like figuration in the hands. Still the key is ambiguous. A light begins to shine in the darkness. I won’t go on, but you get the idea. The further sub-title ‘Poème Symphonique’ is an accurate description. Its seventeen minutes went by very quickly.

The rest of the CD is made up of shorter, functional pieces, based on plainchant and choral melodies. It is amazing to think that Dupré went to the trouble to compose seventy-nine chorale preludes presented here in two groups. They are mostly very short and inconsequential. The Op. 48 Antiphons however are more interesting if still functional. Although not meant as didactic exercises it is illuminating to hear the various ways Dupré treats these Christmas-tide (including Candle Mass) plainsongs. In one there is the tune in canon between the hands (‘Durch Adam’s Fall’); in another the melody is, as was common in earlier times, in the tenor (‘Ich hab’ mein Sach Gott’). In another it is elaborated in the soprano part (‘Herr Jesu Christ’). There are other examples.

So to sum up I can say that there is enough worthwhile music on this CD to make it worth its shelf space. I shall now make it my business to investigate some of the previous volumes.

Gary Higginson


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