Louis VIERNE (1870-1937)
24 Pièces de fantaisie: Part II
Suite II, Op.53 (1926)
Suite IV, Op.55 (1927)
Kay Johannsen (Kern organ)
rec. Frauenkirche, Dresden, German, 24-29 May 2008. DDD.
Co-production of Carus Verlag and Stiftung Frauenkirche Dresden.
CARUS 83.251 [75:42]
Reviewing an earlier Carus recording of Vierne (Symphonies 3 and 5, 83.405 - see review), I expressed my surprise that the Kern organ in the Dresden Frauenkirche lent itself so well to French music of this period. That recording, like the new one, proclaims Viernes Orgelwerke on the front cover and the Carus website refers to the new recording as a Fortsetzung der Gesamteinspielung der Orgelwerke von Louis Vierne bei Carus, so I’m happy to report that I was right to assume that a complete series is in the making. The new CD is the successor to an earlier recording by Kay Johannsen of the other Pièces de fantaisie, Op.51 and Op.53.
The Pièces de fantaisie are less well known than Vierne’s Organ Symphonies, apart from the famous Carillon de Westminster from Suite III; there seems to be only one rival recording of all four currently available (Olivier Latry on BNL112742, 2 CDs). Though they contain some fine music, there are occasional longueurs unless they are played by a performer thoroughly in tune with their idiom.
I haven’t had access to Latry’s performances but, as Vierne’s successor at Notre Dame, he can be expected to be in touch with the idiom of the music and these CDs were well received when they appeared in 1990. If the video on YouTube where he plays the Toccata from Suite II on the Notre Dame organ is anything to judge by, I’m impressed. He takes a little longer than Johannsen but he brings out the debt to Bach and the power of the music even more clearly.
Johannsen is an esteemed interpreter of the German organ tradition: Glynn Pursglove was very impressed with his recording of Advent and Christmas music on Carus 83.179, a recording which he thought too good for just Christmas - see review; Chris Bragg liked the music and the performances but the organ left him ‘stone-cold’ - see review.
On the other hand, CB thought Johannsen’s playing of Liszt (Carus 83.171) less instinctive, remarking that it sounds “dark, supple, sometimes very atmospheric, and very musical, if, for my taste a little cold” - see review - which pretty well sums up my feelings about the Vierne.
Carus have chosen as their default illustration of the recording on their homepage a sample from the opening movement, Lamento, of Suite II. This will give you an idea of Johannsen’s way with the quieter sections of the music, but click on the word Hörproben and you’ll be able to hear mp3 samples from the other movements. Don’t judge the quality of the performances overall by that opening movement or the by the other reflective movements such as the following Sicilienne; there were times when I thought that Johannsen was just a little bored in those quieter moments and I much preferred his playing in the more extrovert pieces.
Listening to these extracts won’t, of course, let you hear the full majesty of the recorded sound, especially in the larger-scale movements which close each Suite, Toccata (track 6) and Les cloches de Hinckley (tr.12), where Johannsen’s playing can be heard at its best. The latter deserves to be as popular as the Carillon de Westminster, especially when played as well as it is here. I have heard this piece taken more quickly, but Johannsen’s pace is totally convincing.
The notes are rather brief and, in the English translation at least, an abridgement of the German original, tell us little about the individual movements. I should have thought it likely that English readers would have wanted to know about the reference to the bells of Hinckley (tr.12) but only the German original refers (briefly) to the influence of change-ringing on the structure of this piece. The Carus website mentions Vierne’s fascination with cathedrals, and, indeed, the third movement of Suite IV is entitled Cathédrales (tr.9), but Hinckley, situated between Leicester and Coventry, boasts only a parish church; Vierne must have heard its bell-ringers in action on one of his visits to England in the early 1920s. I think most listeners would have sacrificed the photocopy of the autograph score of the first page of Clair de lune on p.5 in order to have had more information about the music.
In another respect, the booklet is very helpful; like the recording of the Symphonies, it contains a full specification of the Kern organ in the Frauenkirche. Designed to replace the original 1736 Silbermann organ, destroyed in the bombing of Dresden, its specification was specifically planned to build on the Franco-German heritage of its predecessor. Silbermann had received his training in Strasbourg, long before the days of Cavaillé-Coll, of course, some of whose principles were incorporated into the new Frauenkirche instrument, thereby ‘honoring the memory of Silbermann while also enabling the organist to play 19th and 20th century music with conviction’, as Hans Musch’s note puts it.
On the whole Kay Johannsen’s playing does present the music convincingly enough, combined with good recording, for me to consider obtaining the earlier CD containing his performances of the other two Suites of Pièces (83.250). You might just want to check out that Latry recording, though, if you get the chance.