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Poème Héroïque: Works for Organ and Brass Quintet
Eugène GIGOUT (1844-1925) Grand Chœur Dialogué [5:24]
César FRANCK (1820-1890) Cantabile (1878) [5:44]
Léon BOËLLMANN (1862-1897) Fantaisie Dialoguée [7:48]
Marcel DUPRÉ (1886-1971) Poème Héroique, Op.33 (1935) [7 :29]
Cortège et Litanie, Op.19/2 (1921) [5:38]
Félix Alexandre GUILMANT (1837-1911) Symphonie nr.1, Op.42 (1874) [22:11]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921) Symphonie nr.3  avec orgue  : Finale (1886) [7:47]
Arrangements (except Dupré Poème) by Steven Verhaert (b. 1969)
Jan Vermeire (Woehl organ, 1993); Ottone Brass Quintet
rec. Sankt Petrikirche, Cuxhaven, Germany, 23-25 March 2007. DDD.
TALENT RECORDS DOM 2910 108 [62:18]

Experience Classicsonline

I hadn’t encountered Talent Records before, though I see from their website that this Belgian company has a fairly substantial back-catalogue. Based in Wilrijk in the Flemish-speaking area, they proclaim themselves ‘a label of classical opportunities’ and two logos printed on the rear insert of the CD proclaim the support of the Flemish Community (Vlaamse Gemeenschap) and Government (Vlaamse Overheid).

This recording at first seems to raise more questions than answers – why add a brass quintet to several works of what is effectively a catalogue of famous names of late-Romantic and early 20th-century French and Belgian composers, when the instrument itself is perfectly capable of reproducing the sound of several wind instruments? And why travel to Cuxhaven in North Germany to record the programme, when North German organs are usually associated with a very different repertoire – such as the MDG recording of Buxtehude, Bach, Böhm and Reincken on the organ at nearby Norden, which came with the same package of review discs – and when the booklet rightly stresses the importance of the Cavaillé-Coll organ in the creation of this Franco-Belgian organ literature?

One piece here, the Dupré Poème Héroïque which gives its name to the collection, was actually composed for the organ-wind ensemble combination, which at least lends some credibility to these arrangements of the other pieces, made by Steven Verhaert, with added percussion. The final work, too, adds to the credibility of the enterprise: this Saint-Saëns piece is an arrangement of the finale of his Symphony No. 3, the Organ Symphony.

As for the use of the Cuxhaven organ, the notes go some way towards explaining the choice by noting that the console of the instrument, built in 1993 ‘in symphonic style’ is sited at ground level, rather than in an organ loft, thus facilitating ease of contact between soloist and ensemble. The pipe-work, located directly behind the altar, is illustrated on the back cover of the booklet and a full specification of the instrument – three manuals plus pedals – is given in the booklet, though not the registrations employed for the individual pieces.

At this stage, therefore, before playing the CD, I was partly, but only partly, convinced of the raison d’être for this recording; there was plenty still to play for.

I listened first to the Franck Poème, the only work originally composed for this combination – though even this piece has been modified in an unspecified manner. I don’t recall having heard it before – there seems to be only one other recording currently available (Daniel Jay McKinley/Columbus Indiana Philharmonic/David Bowden on Naxos 8.553992) but it is an impressive piece, composed for the reconsecration of Verdun Cathedral in 1935 and conceived as an elegy for the fallen of the First World War and as a testimony to their heroism. The elegiac mood predominates but the work never descends into lugubriousness – far from it – and the performance made a strong impression on me. The combination of organ, brass and percussion cannot have been easy to record but the balance is well managed here. As far as this track was concerned, I was sold.

Next I tried the finale of the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony, a work so difficult to record that engineers sometimes have to resort to having the orchestra and organ in different locations. The layout of the Sankt Petrikirche solves that problem neatly, so once again the recording balance sounded fine. I had slight reservations here about the ability of the organ to deliver the clout required but this was not a major problem. The arrangement does not do serious harm to the music and, with lively performances from all concerned, this track makes a very impressive conclusion to the recording.

The arrangements for organ and brass don’t do any real damage to the other pieces, nor do they do much to enhance them. As Dr Johnson remarked of a female preacher he had heard, a rarity in his day; like a dog standing on its hind legs, it may not be an elegant sight but the miracle is that it can be done at all. The Gigout and Boëllmann Dialogues lend themselves very well to the arrangement.

The programme is well planned, beginning, for example, with all guns blazing in the Gigout, followed by the more thoughtful Franck Cantabile, which would make a fine Evensong postlude, succeeded in turn by the fanciful meanderings and final burst of glory of the Boëllmann Dialogue Fantasy – another impressive work which I hadn’t heard before. The blazing guns dominate in the general mix, but that is the in the nature of such programmes; the performers are equally convincing in both the blazing guns and the quieter moments – if anything, I thought the organ more suited to those quieter moments. Despite the good balance in general, just occasionally it gets lost in the louder music.

I’m not sure that I’ll be playing this CD too often but it will certainly get the occasional outing, especially when the neighbours are away and I can let rip: the recording quality is good enough to do that without distortion. With attractive performances from all concerned and some interesting rarities, I’d certainly recommend this to seasoned fans of organ music in search of the unusual; I don’t think they’ll be disappointed. Beginners would be well advised to look elsewhere.

The attractively illustrated booklet contains helpful information about the composers and the individual works, in Flemish, French, German and reasonably idiomatic English. I’m not sure what the Order of the Driekoningen (Three Kings, but not translated in the booklet) is, into which we are told that Jan Vermeire was inducted in 2001; presumably, Flemish speakers would be expected to know. It’s easy to misread the booklet as stating that the arrangements were made in 1969; if so, Steven Verhaert must have been an even more precocious musical genius than Mozart or Mendelssohn, since that was the year of his birth! Verhaert is in fact a solo- and ensemble trumpet player and conductor; in addition to his performance here as a member of the Ottone Quintet, he has made a number of CD recordings, including an MDG recording on which he conducts HR Brass in his own arrangements of Verdi Overtures (MDG 603 11872).

Brian Wilson





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