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Marcel Dupré (1886-1971)
Organ Works - Volume 9
Vingt-Quatre Inventions Op. 50 (1956) [46:58]
Trois Hymnes, Op. 58 (Matines, Vesper, Laudes) (1963) [20:19]

Ben van Oosten (organ)
rec. Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, Paris, October, 2007. DDD
Experience Classicsonline

Though I was aware of the well-liked Guild ‘Complete Organ Works of Dupré’, performed by Jeremy Filsell, and of a similar series on Naxos, the existence of a third series in process from Ben van Oosten on the MDG label had somehow eluded me. I am, however, glad to make its acquaintance belatedly with the ninth volume in the series, even if these are not Dupré’s best, or best-known works. Played alongside the most recent Dupré organ work that I have reviewed, his Prelude and Fugue in g minor on Christopher Herrick’s Organ Fireworks XII (CDA67612) these are very small beer.

Like my colleague CB, reviewing Volume 7 – see review – I find myself praising the performances but left slightly out in the cold by the music. The 24 Inventions take almost as long to perform as Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and, though they employ the title Invention, I know which of these works displays the greater degree of that quality. MDG are recording the music in more or less chronological order and, sadly, I have to agree with CB that it is his earlier music which makes the greater impact. I have to confess that I began this review several weeks ago and, convinced that I had finished it and sent it off, set it to one side. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, MDG. As I now discover, that must have been due to some deeply unconscious memory that the music had not appealed to me. 

GMS praised Volume 6 in this series unreservedly, though he admitted to finding the later music on that volume, the two-movement Annonciation, Op.56, harder to come to terms with than the Op.28 and Op.48 works with which it is coupled – see review. Op.56 came between the Inventions of 1956 and the Trois Hymnes (1963). The notes which accompany Volume 9 admit that this was not a very creative period for Dupré: at the age of 68 he had reluctantly agreed to become Director of the Paris Conservatoire, not a position to which he was naturally well suited – he described it as a preview of purgatory. 

Those notes describe the Inventions as exquisite. I am sure that some of them would make an excellent preamble for a congregation awaiting the beginning of Mass, Vespers or its English equivalent Evensong in a collegiate church or cathedral. They are emphatically not my cup of tea for hearing one after the other, though I admire their craftsmanship. Like Bach’s Well-tempered Klavier, they explore all the major and minor keys from C major to e-flat minor; alternating major and minor, they ought to offer a pleasing variety – which they do, in a sense – but I perceive them as far more of an academic exercise than the Bach. 

Nor was I much more impressed with the Three Hymns, for Matins, Vespers and Lauds. The notes inform us that the music is modal and liturgical in character but not based on any existing tunes – which means that the term ‘liturgical’ is actually meaningless in this context. The notes are correct, however, in saying that the music evokes a monastic – I’d rather say ‘contemplative’ – atmosphere, though the final piece, Lauds, is vigorous in nature. 

Again, I can imagine myself admiring the music more as a prelude to one of these services or as an interlude between Matins and Lauds when these services are run together, as they usually were in the Tridentine rite, before Vatican II replaced them with the mundane English of Morning Prayers. Are the vernacular translations in other languages as awful as the modern Roman and Anglican versions, which often cut perversely across the flow of the Latin cursus, so beautifully respected by Cranmer’s 16th-century originals? “The Lord be with you – And with thy spirit” is dignified; “And also with you” falls flat on its face and refuses to get up. Don’t even try to sing it. Wisely, Radio 3 broadcasts of Anglican Choral Evensong still employ the 1662 version in preference to the modern mish-mash. 

Though I knew that there was no underlying chant, something made me keep listening expectantly, as if I might find something. Perhaps it was the knowledge that 20th-century French organ composers do often use Gregorian themes – Duruflé’s Quatre Motets, for example – which made me listen for the non-existent, or maybe it was due simply to the fact that I love and review a lot of Renaissance music where I have become accustomed to listening for a cantus firmus. 

I cannot fault the performances or the recording. The organ, too, that of the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, Paris, is ideal for the music. First built by Le Pescheur in 1636 and most recently rebuilt in 1991, its greatest claim to suitability lies in its Cavaillé-Coll rebuild of 1863. I’m sure that Dupré can be played on other organs – as witness the Herrick recording to which I have referred, on the organ of Haderselev Cathedral, Denmark – but it certainly helps. The booklet contains a full specification of the instrument, though the registration chosen for each piece is not given.

You may like the music here much more than I did – try before you buy, if possible. Far better, though, to go for one of the excellent versions of Dupré’s Chemin de la Croix – van Oosten’s own well-liked version (MDG 316 0953-2) or the CPO SACD with interpolated Passiontide chants, which JQ praised so highly (777 128-2 – see review – also available as a 320kbps mp3 download from for £7.99). For a 2-CD introduction to Dupré’s music, try John Scott’s Hyperion recording, recently reissued as a lower-mid-price Dyad set (CDD22059 – see DC’s enthusiastic review). 

The Guild series is available to download in mp3 format from Chandos’s for £6.00 per volume: Le Chemin de la Croix is on Volume 10, GMCD7193. Some Guild recordings are also available to download on emusic but not, apparently, any of the Dupré series. 

My lukewarm reaction to this Dupré CD may have been coloured by the fact that I listened to it just after playing Jennifer Bate’s splendid Beauvais recording of Messiaen’s Les Corps Glorieux – strongly recommended as an mp3 download from for a mere £4.50 as part of their Messiaen centenary year special offer: no booklet of notes, but a splendid bargain.

Brian Wilson


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