Gabriel Pierné is perhaps best known now
for being the director of the Concerts Colonne from 1910 to
1934. But his long career included such varied roles as virtuoso
pianist, organist at St. Clotilde in Paris in succession to
César Franck, and composer.
As a composer Pierné
was solidly academic, reflecting the teaching of his masters.
His music encompasses Massenet’s melodic elegance and Franck’s
vast, solid constructions. Rather surprisingly as a conductor
his taste was far more eclectic and the Concerts Colonne were
responsible for promoting a wide variety of composers including
premieres of music by Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Roussel, Milhaud,
Ibert and Saint-Saëns.
(The Year 1000) was written in 1897 when the composer was on
holiday in Brittany. It is a large-scale symphonic poem in three
parts. The highly detailed programme is intended to evoke the
terror of the Christian world at the end of the first millennium
when the apocalypse was expected. It was premiered by Edouard
Colonne and his orchestra and was a great success. It led Pierné
into writing further religion-based works, despite the fact
that he was not particularly devout.
It is the ghost
of Franck that the work evokes. Not only does Pierné repeat
Franck’s use of cyclical form, thus ensuring the work’s homogeneity,
but he also reflects Franck’s symphonic sound-world. Though
written for orchestra and chorus the piece is in no way a choral
symphony, the chorus are simply one colour among many. The work’s
three sections are entitled Miserere Mei, Fête des
fous et de l’ane and Te Deum and Pierné uses a number
of themes with Gregorian chant origins. Though a large-scale
and rather lush work, the composer manages to introduce a strong
feeling of the austerity of the period. Where the piece falls
down, is in the middle section where the Feast of Fools is simply
too tame, albeit beautifully orchestrated.
and the Orchestre National de Lorraine give a fine account of
the work, responding well to the slightly old-fashioned orchestral
style. The performance is suave and well fashioned; you could
believe that the orchestra has been playing this music for years.
The chorus does not sound exceptionally large, but they are
apt to their task and a provide a nice focused tone though they
often seem recessed.
In 1915, whilst
Europe was in the midst of war, Sarah Bernhardt reopened her
theatre in the Place du Chatelet in Paris to present Eugene
Morand’s dramatic poem Les Cathédrales with incidental
music by Pierné. Pierné had already collaborated with the actress
on a number of theatrical works. This event was conceived as
a great lament in the face of the horror of war, evoking the
disfiguring of the great cathedrals and countryside of France.
Pierne wrote eight musical pieces for the work, the longest
by far being the prelude which was conceived for orchestra and
chorus. Again the work evokes Franck and inhabits a similar
world to L’An Mil.
The final work on
the disc, Paysages Franciscains, was written in Brittany
in 1918. It was inspired by a reading of Franciscan Pilgrimages
by the Danish poet and writer Johannes Jorgensen, giving impressions
of his visits to Assisi in the footsteps of St. Francis. The
work was first performed at the Concerts Colonne in 1920 under
the composer’s baton.
In these sketches
of warm Italian landscapes Pierné has moved on from the influence
of Franck to that of Debussy. Here we have some impressive Impressionist
touches worthy of the recently deceased Debussy. It is unclear
whether the work was a deliberate homage by Pierné or simply
reflected his compositional development. The results show his
mastery, without ever matching Debussy’s particular genius.
This is a well put
together disc, with impressive performances of some of Pierné’s
most significant orchestral works. While his writing is never
less than interesting and sophisticated, he lacks the spark of
genius possessed by those contemporaries whom he promoted. But
this should not stop us enjoying this fascinating disc.