Today if Louis Vierne is recognised by the wider musical public
at all it is for his skill as one of principal French composers
of organ music.
However like many
of his contemporaries he had a ‘life beyond the loft’ and undertook
writing in a number of other genres, often with great skill.
Apart from several
works for vocal soloists and orchestra, and a small corpus of
choral and piano music, I have always found his chamber music
particularly interesting. This is especially true of the striking
Quintet of 1917 – a powerful and affecting work which crystallised
his emotions at the time of the deaths of his brother René and
his son Jacques during the hostilities.
No stranger to tribulation
himself, Vierne was born with congenital cataracts and would
legally be classified today as “blind”. However, using a limited
peripheral vision he managed to build on an early gift for music
– he is reputed to have repeated a Schubert melody, note for
note, at the piano when aged only 2. His sight nevertheless
did deteriorate further with age and eventually he had to resort
to Braille to compose.
Of the lesser explored
corners of his repertory are the songs, or melodies. Under consideration
on this pair of CDs we have a large slice of his song output;
some 48 from a total of 60, including all his mature songs barring
the four with harp accompaniment, although some of the melodies
The Ravel settings
have been added since, apart from being close contemporaries
and friends, the artists felt there was an attractive link between
the last of Vierne’s Baudelaire settings (“Le Hiboux” – “The
Owl”) and Ravel’s exploration of birds and insects in the “Histoires
Naturelles”. This is one example of the care and thought that
has gone into this album.
I had not heard
Miss Orde before and hers is a distinctive voice. She is half
Belgian and graduated in French studies from the University
of London, both of which explains her excellent command of the
language – not always a given in this repertoire! There is a
fresh, untutored air to her singing, although she did study
with mezzo-soprano Ana-Raquel Satre. This may be significant
since, in a recent entry on her blog,
as well as revealing she is an active choral singer, she also
discloses that she has begun to sing occasional alto parts.
As recorded I also
found her voice quite dry, without a great deal of lustre, albeit
with all the notes and mercifully no vibrato evident – again
not a given in this repertoire. Her partner Jonathan Cohen also
clearly knows what he is about at the piano but – and here is
my caveat – I’m not sure either of them is done any favours
by the recorded sound.
As you will see
from the header above, no location is vouchsafed other than
a mysterious indication that they were made “in private houses
with a drawing room grand piano”. I think this only emphasises
the dry element in the voice, and a lack of clarity now and
then in the accompaniment – albeit that Vierne doesn’t always
help in this respect - perhaps thinking as an organist.
the factors involved in selecting such venues I am no special
advocate of recording chamber, instrumental, vocal music in
churches. That said I do wonder if a small church/chapel setting
might have been beneficial to this duo – adding extra warmth,
colour and power.
And power is certainly
needed at times. In their liner-notes the duo, whilst quoting
Bernard Bernard Gavoty’s biography of the composergo on to add,
“Vierne was more
elemental, more overtly passionate and, by some gothically tragic
streak in his nature, naturally drawn to poems that featured lightning
storms, and maelstroms, turmoil and tormented souls.”.
For myself I found
the duo seemed at greater ease in the more restrained settings,
for example in the substantial cycle, the op. 38 mélodies “Spléens
et Détresses”, a group of mainly, though not exclusively, rather
sad and disturbed Verlaine poems.
Here Orde captures
the prevailing mood very well. For instance the tedium of the
landscape in the first song ... drifting grey mists, copper-coloured
skies, the snow “gleaming like sand” is conjured up very effectively.
In the fourth, “Promenade Sentimentale” - perhaps the best of
the set - the wounded soul cries out like the sound of birds
(teals actually) as they fly across the lonely lake.
The eighth song
“Sapho” is more disturbed and rises to a climax describing the
poet’s death plunge into the sea. Yet the prevailing mood is
immediately re-established in the following “The false fine
days”, a treatise on the ravages of memories and their reflection.
The final song “Marine”
again rouses strong passions, reflecting not only Gavoty’s Gothic
seascapes, but the thoughts of Orde and Cohen when they write:
“In some of the sea songs it seems the piano has the principal
role as the voice struggles to make the poem heard above the
whoosh of the spray, the roar of the wind, the crash of waves
and the crack of thunder..”.
So – overall then,
whilst being unable to give an unqualified welcome, this is certainly
an issue worth exploring, particularly if the repertoire is likely
to appeal ... albeit that, in truth, the competition is not numerous
at the moment (see Timpani
collection). A great pity this since the quality of the music
on offer here deserves a much wider audience.
and Cohen are to be congratulated upon their enterprise. Whilst
they do not represent the last word on the matter, these discs
are worthy of a serious audition and will be of great value
to students of French music.