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Charles TOURNEMIRE (1870-1939)
L’orgue mystique Vol.1
Office Nr. 29 (23 Dec. 1930) [15:24]
Office Nr.13 (5 Dec. 1929) [17:14]
Office Nr.42 (27 May 1930) [23:22]
Office Nr.51 (5 Feb. 1932) [17:40]
Sandro R. Müller (organ)
Alexander Schuke-Orgel, Alte Reformierte Kirche, Wuppertal-Elberfeld
rec. 17-20 July 1994
CYBELE CD 050.101 [73:40]
Charles TOURNEMIRE (1870-1939)
L’orgue mystique Vol.2
Office Nr. 8 (15 May 1929) [19:54]
Office Nr.22 (22 Oct. 1930) [23:03]
Office Nr.3 (13 Dec. 1927) [24:58]
Sandro R. Müller (organ)
Alexander Schuke-Orgel, Alte Reformierte Kirche, Wuppertal-Elberfeld
rec. 6-8 August 1994
CYBELE CD 050.102 [67:55]
Experience Classicsonline


These two discs, available separately as with all volumes in this series, are the starting point for a huge project by anybody’s standards – player, record label, reviewer and collector. Looking at the Cybele website you may wonder what is going on; with volume 14 recently released, but with only volumes 1-8 otherwise visible at the time of writing. Doing my little bit of journalistic research I asked what the situation was at Cybele, and apparently the other volumes have been recorded and are all due for release, probably at one volume per year. Collectors therefore have nice long term project in prospect, if they find the fascination of inhabiting Tournemire’s mystical organ world in any way appealing.

What is L’orgue mystique? Basically, the work consists of 51 ‘Offices’ or suites, each of which being written for each Sunday of the liturgical year. Prior to commencing work on these pieces, Charles Tournemire had been a talented pianist and studied organ with César Franck and Charles-Marie Widor, but also had had ambitions as a composer of orchestral and operatic work. His earlier organ composition owed a great deal to his teachers, but it was as a result of frustration in his secular work and his devotion to the Roman Catholic faith which would ultimately lead him to a project which would take five years to complete, from 1927 to 1932.

Tournemire has been pointed out as a kind of ‘missing link’ between the grand traditions of Franck and Widor, and the modern organ work of Olivier Messiaen. Indeed, the young Messiaen admired Tournemire’s work and wrote to him in the subject, but while the younger composer clearly took a great deal of technical cues from Tournamire the stylistic differences are also clear. Where Messiaen and Tournemire meet are in the contrasts in colour and texture in their work. L’orgue mystique combines the ancient worlds of Gregorian chant, gathered into suites which might be compared with those of the French Baroque, as well as the liturgical traditions of composers such as Frescobaldi and Buxtehude. The idea of an annual cycle of works for the church year is comparable with the cantatas of J.S. Bach. This background is combined into a heady mixture which owes something to the impressionism of Debussy, and is brought further to life by Tournemire’s reputation as an improviser on the organ.

The booklet notes for this series develop from highly sketchy in Vol.1, to usefully substantial in later volumes. What Vol.1 does have is the composer’s note, which shows the emphasis he placed on the use of plain-chant: “an inexhaustible source of mysterious and splendid lines... [plain-chant] is freely paraphrased for each piece in the course of the works forming the complete set.” I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this grand, somewhat daunting magnum opus, but with the backdrop of such noble and ancient musical traditions, the pieces of L’orgue mystique are in fact largely free of the bombast which can plague some ‘late romantic’ – I hesitate to use the phrase in this context – organ work. For sure, there is true grandeur in some of the final movements, the Pièce terminale of each suite, but the overriding impression is one of sensitivity, reserve, elegant expression and sincerely felt and expertly shaped music.

L’orgue mystique is divided into “three great cycles”: Christmas, Easter, and the cycle following Whitsuntide. Vol.1 covers three of the Sundays after Whitsunday, Op.57, and includes Office Nr.13 from the Easter cycle, Op.56. Being something of a seriously lapsed churchgoer, I won’t attempt to draw out the symbolism and meaning from the religious content of these pieces. Aside from being a thoroughly engrossing programme, beautifully played by Sandro R. Müller, there are plenty of highlights. It’s easy to pass over the many quieter movements, but have a listen to the Communion from Office Nr.42. A tonally confusing chord is built from nowhere, followed by an entirely delightful impressionistic texture over which a promising melody forms, only to be wrested away by chromatic dissonance and deviation – all in a most gentle and unassuming way. The final Fresque of Office Nr.13 is also a fine movement, developing from simple intervals into an improvisatory sequence which isn’t so very far from Messiaen. The conclusion of the entire disc is the Fantaisie sur le te Deum et Guirlandes Alléluiatiques, and a fittingly powerful close. If there is any comment to be made on the recording, it might be that the organ seems perhaps a little too far away to catch the entire weight of this kind of movement – possibly lacking a little dynamic contrast as well as a result. I don’t want to complain as these are all fine recordings, but the listener is placed more in a seat at ground level, rather than in an artificial spot somewhere in mid-air in front of the pipes. This means a musically satisfying and I must say entirely non-fatiguing experience, but may not get your trouser-bottoms flapping in quite the same way as some hi-fi organ spectaculars.

Volume 2 takes two of the offices from the Christmas cycle, with the Office Nr.22 from the 5th Sunday after Easter sandwiched in between. The ‘Christmas Mass’ doesn’t follow the popular image of the Christmas story which most of us call to mind when the subject arises. Tournemire deliberately sought out the texts which depict Christ as ruler, and chimes in more with the composer’s view of an exploration of ‘the mysteries’, and going far beyond popular celebratory tradition. The resulting music is as filled with impression and colour as parts of the rest of the cycle, and combines the moods in the salvation of the crucifixion as a parallel to the more common associations of the crib and the child in swaddling. In other words, don’t expect sing-along carols. The Office Nr.3 contains a remarkable, chillingly static Offertoire, and another inspired improvisational sounding Paraphrase as a conclusion. It is with the Easter Office Nr.22 that you begin to realise some of the contrast between the feasts. The opening Introit shimmers with the wings of a choir of angels, and the following Offertoire has another of those irresistibly lilting accompaniment figure which both entice, and then intrigue with vanishing tricks and swift excursions into areas of tonal rarity.

The only other complete edition of L’orgue mystique I know of is played by Georges Delvallée on the Accord label. After a having listen to some samples of this on one online retail site I was none the wiser, the distorted compression I met with rendering any kind of comparison entirely invalid. All I can say is that Cybele’s production is top notch, and highly unlikely to disappoint in any intrinsic regard.

Fans of organ music need have no trepidation about exploring L’orgue mystique. It takes you to musical regions far removed from the symphonic heft of Widor or Vierne, and intentionally explores greater spiritual depths than composers such as Duruflé. While however challenging some of the preconceptions you may have about French organ music it remains almost entirely approachable, often very beautiful, and with no weaknesses identified by this reviewer. The well chosen 1968 Alexander Schuke-Orgel has quite a French sound, with both the reedy penetration and mellifluous roundness of tone which brings this music to life. I certainly have nothing but admiration for the skills of Sandro R. Müller, whose phrasing and sensitive articulation gives the music the sense of spontaneous invention it needs to lift it beyond any kind of stuffy air of academia. I look forward to reviewing the following volumes with palpable expectation.

Dominy Clements


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