Chandos already have several
recordings of French organ music, played by Ian Tracey, in their
catalogue: Fantaisie Triomphale on CHSA5048; French
Organ Classics on CHAN9716 and two CDs of French Symphonies
for Organ and Orchestra, with the BBC Philharmonic/Yan Pascal
Tortelier on CHAN 9271 and CHAN9785, the last-named receiving
a strong recommendation
from my colleague Gary S Dalkin as well as from other reviewers.
The reissue of Ian Tracey’s
Classics for Pleasure CD Organ Recital at Liverpool Cathedral,
a mixed recital with no overlap with the present CD (3 82228
2) also received a most enthusiastic review here on Musicweb
France: “A great CD. Buy it for yourself, or more appropriately
for anyone who is on the cusp of becoming an organ buff!” I’d
like to borrow those words for the present disc.
The CD opens with a display
piece which is much more than just display: the whole disc might
well have been devised to demonstrate that there is much more
to the great French organ tradition than just a mighty sound.
Much of the music is quiet and reflective and the bravura
works, like this Tournemire improvisation, have more to offer
than glorious sound.
This is one of the improvisations
which Tournemire recorded and which were subsequently transcribed
by Duruflé. Tournemire insisted that improvisations could not
and should not be recaptured but this Improvisation on the
Te Deum is a fine piece, worthy of preservation. The CD
notes attribute this work to L’Orgue mystique, a cycle
of 51 pieces on Gregorian themes for the major festivals of
the liturgical year but, whereas that work consists of improvisation-like
pieces which Tournemire actually wrote down, the Te Deum
improvisation was not written down until Duruflé’s labour of
love in transcribing it 28 years later.
in Ian Tracey’s hands almost persuades one that one is hearing
the actual process of improvisation, yet at the same time the
playing is totally assured. The Liverpool organ may not be a
Cavaillé-Coll, but it is a fine instrument.
Only careful listening
identifies the plainsong tune of the Te Deum but that
is part of the art of composing such pieces. Bach sometimes
buries his chorale melodies fairly deeply in his preludes and
Duruflé’s own music based on plainsong themes sometimes requires
a deal of detective work. Try his Four motets on Gregorian
themes, coupled with his own performance of his gorgeous,
Fauré-inspired Requiem and his Mass Cum jubilo
on Apex 2564 61139 2, a budget-price distillation of two Erato
CDs which have long been in my collection.
The two short pieces by
Bonnet which follow are fairly insubstantial but they make an
excellent bridge between the display of the Tournemire and the
Saint-Saëns improvisation, itself an exercise in virtuosity
which receives a glorious free-wheeling performance from Tracey.
There is very little Saint-Saëns organ music in the record catalogues;
a performance like this reminds us that there is much more to
him than The Carnival of the Animals, as I have pointed
out in my recent review of two of his Piano Concertos. (Jean-Yves
Thibaudet with the OSR under Charles Dutoit on Decca 475 8764).
The title of Franck’s Grande
Pièce Symphonique, which is used as the generic name of
the CD as a whole, implies employment of the big guns but, in
fact, the dominant mood of this piece is restrained, with frequent
markings of dolce, pp and even ppp. The
opening andante serioso is subdued and reflective: Tracey
captures the serioso mood here as well as the mood of
the succeeding allegro section, faster but still no
troppo e maestoso. The notes in the booklet compare the
opening section to a processional but I was put more in mind
of a hushed and expectant congregation awaiting the start of
In the quiet and reflective
andante opening of the second movement, too, the image
conjured up is of the preparation for an important service –
a role which Tracey, in his capacity at Liverpool Cathedral,
will have performed many times. He captures all these quiet
passages extremely effectively, especially in those sections
marked cantando, and the recording registers every detail,
with individual manual- and pedal-parts coming over very clearly.
The Liverpool reverberation is kept to a minimum.
The finale also opens pp,
but with a hint of a storm to come. When those bigger guns finally
arrive, in the wonderful fugue and the concluding outburst of
joy, they are all the more effective for having been kept so
long in reserve – and for Franck’s retaining a considerable
degree of restraint even when they do fire. This is certainly
not a showpiece for the sake of mere show and Tracey shows admirable
restraint where a lesser organist might well have gone overboard.
These grander moments are also very well captured by the engineers,
even in normal stereo. One is again aware of the resonance of
the building without its ever interfering with the clarity of
Those seeking to expand
their knowledge of Franck’s organ music will inevitably reduplicate
the Grande pièce, albeit at bargain price and on French
organs. Either Jennifer Bate on the Beauvais organ (Regis RRC2054)
or Marie-Claire Alain on the Cavaillé-Coll organ at Caen (Apex
2564 61428 2) will do very nicely. Both are 2-CD sets selling
for around £9 in the UK.
The Gigout Scherzo provides
a lighter, capricious moment before the Widor: delicacy of touch
is paramount here and this Tracey very ably provides.
The Widor Symphony is not
the one with the Toccata: that is No.5, already recorded
in full by Tracey on CHAN9271. Listeners may welcome the chance
to get away from that ubiquitous piece and at the same time
hear another of his symphonies in its entirety: the Fourth Symphony
is as good a piece as any to choose. Don’t expect these works,
despite their title, to sound too symphonic: they are more like
a suite than a symphony. Again Tracey’s chief rival in this
work is Marie-Claire Alain’s authoritative account on the Cavaillé-Coll
organ at Saint Germain (Warner Elatus 2564 60341 2, at mid-price).
Franck left his big guns
till the end of his Grande Pièce; the Widor Symphony
does the opposite, starting with a fff marking at the
beginning of the opening Toccata. This is a big movement – by
definition a Toccata is designed to show off the player’s expertise
in ‘touching’ the keys. (From Italian toccare, to touch.)
Tracey makes the Toccata sound big without being entirely overwhelming
and without setting off too much reverberation: if anything,
I might have wanted him to sound just a little more ferocious.
The Fugue begins quietly with the 16’ pedal tone which the score
calls for held in restraint; the effect is ethereal.
The third movement, marked
dolce, opens even more ethereally, with the pp
organ barely audible. This is the best-known movement, often
played as a separate piece. The booklet compares it to Daquin’s
Noëls but, having recently reviewed an excellent Hyperion
Helios reissue of the Noëls (CDH 55319) I have to say
that the relationship is a distant one apart from the cantabile
nature of the music, excellently captured by Tracey. The central
section, written in four staves – i.e. with two sets of pedal
parts – is fiendishly difficult but Tracey, with art that conceals
art, makes it sound effortless.
The Scherzo and
Adagio are again gentle movements, the pp opening
of each setting the tone. The mood of the Adagio anticipates
that of Fauré’s Requiem by twenty-one years. Tracey’s
nimble playing in the Scherzo, his lighter touch in the
Adagio and the recording are once more absolutely first
It is a mark of a fine
recording not only that it captures the loudest moments without
distortion but that it makes an equally good job of registering
music on the threshold of hearing. The Chandos engineers score
in both respects on this CD – just don’t try to play it in the
car: the volume required for the quieter movements to register
would place you in the head-bangers’ league in the louder movements.
The Finale begins fff,
a marking which recurs at several points in the movement. The
big guns are unleashed at the start but Widor is careful again
not to make the effect too overwhelming and Tracey’s playing
contributes to the comparative restraint, especially in the
central part of this movement. The closing bars bring a confident
conclusion to the work, confidently executed.
I have already indicated
that the recording is first-class even in stereo. In SACD surround-format
I am sure that the ambience of Liverpool Cathedral is perfectly
captured, albeit without too much of the reverberation of this
I’m going for broke and
nominating this my Recording of the Month. I cannot imagine
a better place to start to get to know the French organ repertoire
– unless it should be one of Ian Tracey’s other recordings in
this series. Lovers of the genre should place their orders at