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Louis VIERNE (1870-1937)
The Symphonies
Symphonie no.1 in D minor op.14 [36:32]
Symphonie no.5 in A minor op.47 [41:25]
Symphonie no.2 in E minor op.20 [39:22]
Symphonie no.4 in G minor op.32 [35:59]
Symphonie no.3 in F sharp minor op.28 [31:28]
Symphonie no.6 in B minor op.59 [40:15]
Kees Geluk (1 & 5) Eric Quist (2 & 4) Bert den Hertog (3 & 6) (organ)
rec. Notre-Dame, Laeken (Symphonies 1,2,5,6), 30 June, 27 October and 17 November 2004 and 25 May 2005. Église des Dominicains, Brussels (Symphonies 3,4), 28 April 2005
D.E. VERSLUIS DEV-VI1010 [3 CDs: 77:57 + 75:21 + 71:43]

This is an enterprising set from the Versluis stable. Three young(er) lions from The Netherlands, none born earlier than 1977, set to work on two grand organs, the one in Laeken by the Pierre Schyven company from 1874, and a later 1910 instrument at the Dominican Church in Brussels, by Salomon van Bever. The box is well presented, with extensive booklet notes on all of the Symphonies, including numerous musical illustrations. There are also full specifications of each instrument and some nice photos.
I was really looking forward to getting stuck in to some glorious organ sounds, but the end result is a little disappointing. It’s not always easy to decide initially whether the instrument or the recording is at fault, but listening, score in hand, to Prélude of the Symphonie No.1 and it is quite hard to hear what is going on. The organ sounds as if the microphones are just that bit too distant for any clarity from the detail in the inner voices – either that or the balance of the registers is unhelpful in this regard. I know we needn’t expect to hear every note, and some of the 32nd note runs are more effect than figuration, but I found the score quite hard to follow even knowing the music fairly well. The same goes for the Fugue, where being able to hear the voices would appear to be a minimum requirement. Trying a different texture in the more chorale-like movement of the Grave opening of Symphonie No.5 from the same disc and the music fares a little better, although the rather opaque and boomy textures don’t really make for glorious listening. The dramatic Allegro molto marcato proved to be the final straw. Kees Geluk’s playing is good enough, and the recording captures plenty of succulent bass, but too much of the music is obscured by the swimmy recording. I can sympathise with any sound engineer who admits to struggling with over six seconds of reverb in the acoustic, but this problem has certainly been dealt with better in similar locations.
My principal source for comparison has been the acclaimed set played by Ben van Oosten on the MDG label; from 1986 by now becoming a little long in the tooth. His timings in the Symphonie No.5 are longer by a fairly wide margin in some of the movements, but he somehow manages to avoid making the music overly lugubrious, even in a Larghetto which turns in at 12 minutes to Geluk’s 10:57. The main difference is in the recordings, in which the MDG engineers somehow manage to preserve the atmosphere of the Rouen acoustic, while giving us a great deal more detail from the instrument.
Moving on to the second disc, and it is interesting to compare the same instrument and location but a different organist in Eric Quist for the Symphonie No.2. Many of the problems mentioned above are still present, but either Quist has a lighter touch than Geluk, or had more luck with the atmospherics – either way there is a tad more clarity, not quite enough to have me sitting back and enjoying the full textures of the final bars of the opening Allegro, but getting there. Once again, straining to hear the quiet passages in the Choral, I still have the nagging feeling that more microphones placed closer or higher would have given us a more satisfying aural picture of what after all sounds to be a genuinely fine organ. Some evidence of this might be in the amount of ambient noise caught at the end of each movement – not in the way of extraneous traffic noises or the like, but the ‘ruis’ of the acoustic, almost like tape hiss, generated by higher ambient levels relative to the instrument. I know I’m opening myself to angry e-mails in green ink from the producers of this set, but if in the end it’s a set I don’t feel is worth keeping then I have to provide my reasons.
Moving on to the second work on CD 2, and we have the second instrument in this set, at the Église des Dominicains, Brussels. In sonic terms it is arguable that it might have been better if all of the works in this set had been recorded at this location. No, it’s not all things to all organ buffs – I’m not entirely convinced that the ‘French sound’ is represented at its best here, but the famously sinuous opening certainly has a great deal more definition than from Laeken. The Van Bever organ in fact has a quite rounded and euphonic sound, but there are a few intonation issues. Just after the second repeat in the Menuet the G# left hand octaves give rise to some distinctly comic effects, and after that kind of thing I’m afraid I always end up listening for the next funny bit and miss out on the music proper. The Romance fares no better, with some serious shrill dodginess killing anything which might approach the ‘molto espressivo’ marking. With a solid Final we’re back on track, but far too late to make this anything other than an also-ran in a catalogue with some serious competition. Recorded on the same instrument, the popular Symphonie No.3 starts well, and Bert den Hertog acquits himself well in the Allegro maestoso of the opening movement. There are some magical effects in the Cantilèlene, and most of the problems which cropped up in the Symphonie No.4 seem to have been avoided here. Aside from some vagueness in the tuning of the bass lines in the Adagio this is the best recording in the set, concluded with an imperiously refined Final which has all of the rhythmic drive and rise in tension you could ask for.
Bert den Hertog studied with Ben van Oosten, and so it is interesting to compare their versions of the Symphonie no.6. Timings are pretty similar, and nothing that would indicate anything much more that the usual kind of variations for which different acoustics and instruments would account. Den Hertog’s playing is stylish and elegant, and his legatos provide the kind of expressive line one looks for in a gorgeous movement such as the Aria, although the mechanical noise from the instrument provides an unfortunate extra percussion track at some points. The crucial and dramatic Final is played with plenty of fire, but once again, any sense of the detail in Vierne’s idiomatically superb writing for the organ is rather hard to follow. Van Oosten on MDG blows your socks off, and the Versluis version I’m afraid just has you screwing everything up in order to try and hear what’s going on – at least for some of the time.
I am deeply aware of the differences between monitoring recordings on headphones and speakers, and as a result I have spent more time than I normally would putting these recordings through their paces on a number of systems. Readers of these pages might have noted that I’m mostly a headphone person, and I have to admit that some of the problems I have mentioned above with the Notre-Dame in Laeken are to a certain extent reduced when listening on good loudspeakers. The space and sheer amount of air being moved by such magnificent instruments requires a different kind of listening than we sometimes realise, and I certainly do appreciate the complexities of finding exactly the right ‘sweet spots’ when recording in such circumstances. I still find the wash of sound too much most of the time, and my ears still strain to hear what is going on in that Fugue in the Symphonie No.1, but the achievements of the players on these recordings is not to be sniffed at. The sound of the organ in Laeken is certainly very impressive and in no way at all ugly. I suspect this is pretty much the way you would hear it when attending a concert at this location, but for a recording I would still hazard a guess that higher microphone placement and a marginally closer array might have helped.
Where does this leave us? Fans of Vierne will probably already have the Ben van Oosten set on MDG, or may have invested in Jeremy Filsell’s complete recording on Signum Classics, by chance also played on the Cavaillé-Coll organ in St. Ouen in Rouen. This set doesn’t overtake either in terms of all-round quality. Those intrigued by the chance of hearing these Belgian instruments should certainly give this trilogy a try however, and I am seriously impressed by most of the playing on these discs. There is certainly a promising new generation of organists emerging from the Low Countries, and I would be surprised if some of these names do not appear more often in the future.
Dominy Clements


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