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?
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
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.
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.