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Symphonic Organ Music from Brussels and Paris
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Pièce Héroïque (from Trois Pieces) (1878) [08:40]
Paul GILSON (1865-1942)
Prélude sur un vieux lied flamand [07:35]
Raymond MOULAERT (1875-1962)
Lazarus (Trois Poèmes Bibliques) (1916) [10:30]
Joseph JONGEN (1873-1953)
Le Bon Chîval
(1918) [04:16)
Valéry AUBERTIN (b. 1970)
Vincent van Gogh (Livre ouvert)
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937)
Symphony No. 4
(1914) [34:52]
Els Biesemans (organ)
rec. organ, Saint Dominic’s International Priory Church, Brussels, 29-30 Sept 2005
ETCETERA KTC 1299 [75:02]


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This is the kind of CD I like. Let me explain. It is perfectly balanced. The basic concept of the programming is to present three unknown works from the Brussels organ school written around about the time of the First World War. But this release is not all about discovery. Two well known works by a French composer and a Belgian composer open and close the programme. And let’s be honest, you do not get bigger than César Franck and Louis Vierne! And just to add a bit of spice and variety there is a ‘new’ work by a 36 year old French composer who has yet to make a big name for himself – at least this side of La Manche. I intend to spend most of this review looking at the lesser-known works.

Let’s start with the latest piece. Valéry Aubertin was born in Lagny-sur-Marne in 1970. The notes tell us that his teachers included the great Jacques Charpentier and Jean-Louis Florentz. He has scored success in a number of music competitions including those at Trieste and Montréal. There is not much biographical information given here – save to describe the background to the work on this disc. Aubertin thinks big. He has been working on, his magnum opus for organ over the past decade or so. Vincent van Gogh – Les Fresques-Lamento is a small part of a huge symphonic poem for the instrument entitled Livre ouvert (1991).

To put this present short work into context may be helpful. Livre ouvert is part of an ongoing work which today has three main sections – ‘Mass’, ‘Sounds, Space Time & Colours’ and ‘The Time Overflows’. The present work is the fifth movement of the second section.  Aubertin considers four great paintings by van Gogh and tries to write music that reflects the emotional impact these paintings have had on his mind. He writes, ‘The colours and the shapes are transmuted into sounds and structures as if in some delicate alchemical process’. 

How does the music measure up to this grand compositional scheme?

The work opens with reflections on the Church of Auvers sur Oise.  The almost aleatory nature of these opening sounds did not inspire my initial confidence. Yet after a few moments the strangely mysterious effect begins to sink into the mind. There is a timelessness about this musical section that belies its two or so minutes. Soon the music moves into a disturbed passage that is meant to evoke ‘Starry Night’. It is difficult to work out the structural principles here: is it improvised or strictly notated?

Toccata-like music defines what Aubertin feels about Pine Forest with Red Sun’ before the work closes with some rather predictable ‘birdsong’ commenting on ‘Crows over a Cornfield’.

I had my doubts on my first and second run-through of this piece – but as it is only eight minutes I gave it another chance. My opinion? To my mind, based on this short piece Valéry Aubertin appears to be in the ‘apostolic succession’ of great French organist/composers. I would certainly like to hear the entire work and look forward to it being recorded: it has all the potential of a masterpiece.  But please note the data I have on which to make this prediction is very limited indeed.

With Joseph Jongen we are on more secure ground. We already know that he is one of the great Belgian organ composers. However the present piece is actually ‘light music’ and seems to derive from an orchestral work.  All Belgian music enthusiasts know that Jongen composed more than just organ music – just glance at his catalogue and you will be surprised. Le Bon chîval began life as a movement from Pages Intimes – Three Miniatures for String Orchestra Op.55. It was transcribed for organ, presumably by the composer and provides an effective if rather light recital piece. I can imagine this work being played on a Wurlitzer or Compton Theatre organ – such is the style of this charming music. And what is more, it is receiving its first recording on this CD.

Paul Gilson was born in Brussels in 1865 and began to compose as a teenager. He was influenced by the greats – Wagner, Richard Strauss and the Russian ‘Five.’ So perhaps the distinguished organ composers passed him by? His greatest work would appear to be an orchestral piece called La Mer. The present work is his Prelude sur un vieux lied flamand. However it is not the tune that Gilson uses as inspiration but the text of a medieval poem – ‘Ghequetst ben ic van binnen’ (I do not speak Flemish so I cannot translate). Although there are some nice sounds and excellent registrations, the work tends to ramble ever so slightly. A climax is reached before the work dies down and closes - eventually! I am not sure why this work was picked for the present CD: it is one of those pieces that is quite attractive but one does not need to hear it again.

I must confess to being unaware of the life and works of Raymond Moulaert. For the record he was born in Brussels in 1875 and died there in 1962. In spite of having no formal training in composition, he became a competent, if largely unknown composer. He wrote in a wide variety of genres including chamber music, brass bands, saxophones and symphonic music. Furthermore, he taught extensively in the Royal Conservatory of Brussels and the Queen Elisabeth Chapel of Music in the same city.  However he is regarded by critics as excelling in song writing, especially when setting old French and Flemish texts.

Moulaert avoided the prevailing trends which followed the lead of César Franck and Richard Wagner and he does not make use of ‘impressionism’. If anything it would be fair to describe him as a ‘classical’ composer in the widest sense.

The present work is the first part of a massive biblical symphonic poem which has three sections running to over half an hour. Here we listen to a musical exposition of the Parable of Lazarus – who was the unwelcome guest at the rich man’s table. I am not usually fond of programme music – especially when the composer seems to try to follow the text almost literally. So on listening to this piece I tended to ignore the ‘programme’ and tried to enjoy the music as music. I may be wrong in this approach – but do not find it helpful to have musically painted events like Lazarus’ rejection, his translation to heaven or the crumbs falling from the table.

But as a piece of music it is quite wonderful – seriously impressive in fact. Use is made of all musical devices from the opening fortissimo-unison through complex chromatic passages to involved counterpoint. The music ends with a quotation from the requiem mass – In Paradisum. This is an extremely effective and well balanced work that deserves to be in the repertoire.

I intend to say little about the Louis Vierne Symphony No. 4 and the Pièce Héroïque by César Franck. These works are so well known and well represented on CD that there is little to be gained in giving an historical outline or musical analysis.  It is only fair to say that the interpretation of these two works is superb. Perhaps I did not enjoy the Vierne Symphony quite as well as Ben van Oosten playing the Cavaillé–Coll at St. Ouen, Rouen. But it is still immensely impressive and I would certainly recommend it as an ‘essential’ version of this work. The César Franck is well played and makes a fine opening flourish to this excellent and challenging CD.

The CD is beautifully presented – and comes complete with the indispensable organ specification and a brief history of the organ, the builder and its restoration. Els Biesemans is the organist at the Dominican Church in Brussels and quite obviously has mastered its every nuance. I look forward to hearing her play again.

John France


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