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Hommage à Cochereau
David BRIGGS (b. 1962)
Improvisation sur ‘Alouette, gentille alouette’ [16:47]
Thierry ESCAICH (b. 1965)
Suite improvisée [17:29]
Loïc MALLIÉ (b. 1947)
Suite improvisée sur le nom de Pierre Cochereau [22:02]
George C. BAKER (b. 1951)
Ricercar on ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’ (2004) [3:21]
Berceuse-Paraphrase (1992) [6:37]
Toccata-Gigue on the Sussex Carol (2008) [5:03]
George Baker, David Briggs, Thierry Eschaich, Loïc Mallié (organ)
rec. 17 October 2008, Église Saint-Vincent de Roquevaire (Briggs); 9 December 2008, Église Saint-Roch de Paris (Escaich); 8 February 2009, Salle Xavier Darasse du CNSMD de Lyon (Mallié); 7 December 2008, Église Saint-Sulpice de Paris (Baker)
SOLSTICE SOCD252 [71:25]
Experience Classicsonline

This is an enterprising project: four organists celebrating the improvisatory skills of French keyboard legend Pierre Cochereau (1924-1984). A noted pedagogue and composer, Cochereau was appointed titular organist of Notre-Dame de Paris in 1955, where he stayed until his death in 1984. I first heard him play in the von Karajan/DG version of Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony, where the early digital technology made the organ sound more like a Harley-Davidson than a Cavaillé-Coll. Thankfully, there are no such horrors on this Solstice disc, with all four instruments sympathetically recorded.

By definition improvisations are one-offs, but the advent of recording has changed all that. Indeed, the British organist David Briggs has transcribed 12 of Cochereau’s improvisations from tape and presented them as a set of ‘Cochereau Transcriptions’. For this disc Briggs has chosen to improvise on the French children’s tune ‘Alouette, gentille Alouette’, which he plays on the organ of Église Saint-Vincent de Roquevaire. This 18th-century church, set in Pagnol country, is especially appropriate as it’s also home to Cochereau’s ‘house organ’. The instrument has a lovely sparkle in its upper reaches, while lower down it’s as full-bodied as a Côtes de Provence red ’97. It’s an intricate and consistently inventive performance, every small detail and flourish well caught by the engineers.

So, a good start, but rather different in style to the more cerebral Suite improvisé by the French organist and composer Thierry Escaich. I first came across his music on a disc of pieces for trumpet and organ - review - where I much admired his ‘highly mobile’ Evocation II. As the winner of several prestigious prizes and a professor at the Paris Conservatoire, it’s no surprise that this five-movement work - played on the organ of Église Saint-Roch de Paris - is virtuosic in the extreme. The first movement is certainly monumental, a veritable cliff of sound that Escaich then proceeds to scale with ease. There is an internal tension and rhythmic drive here that I remember from Evocation II.

The bright, upfront character of this instrument suits the music rather well, but in the second movement the organ is made to sound remarkably like a squeezebox, with plenty of deft foot- and finger-work involved. Only in the third movement does Escaich really make use of the organ’s pedals and lower registers. It’s dark, brooding stuff, with an easily discernible pulse and trumpet-like flourishes, the fourth movement more plaintive in style but no less engaging for that. The recording - like the playing - is direct and unfussy, the reedy pipes especially pleasing. That unmistakable pulse returns in the final movement where, after shimmying up the rock-face Escaich presents us with a breathtaking view from the top. A thrilling improvisation, dashed off with Gallic flair.

Unlike Briggs and Escaich, who never actually met Cochereau, Loïc Mallié knew and performed with him. Of all four organists pictured in the CD booklet Mallié looks the least forbidding. Indeed, his ruddy complexion and an easy smile don’t prepare you for his devilishly clever Suite improvisée sur le nom de Pierre Cochereau - notation shown in the booklet. The first movement, Mélodies, is quirky, with a preponderance of unusual colours. The second, Coup de vent, presents swirling keyboard figures over breathy, conch-like pedals, while the bird-like calls and note clusters of the third, Couleurs, are surely a hommage to Mallié’s one-time teacher, Olivier Messiaen. Later, the hypnotic pedals seem like Gothic pillars, the great painted windows evoked in music that pulses with light and colour. As for the final movement, Joie, it has all the cumulative majesty one might expect from Messiaen at his most ecstatic.

One of the spin-offs of this collection is that it allows one to hear a number of very different organs. The one that intrigues me most is that played by Mallié, a 1993 Grenzing installed in the Salle Xavier at the Lyon Conservatoire of Music and Dance. It has a tonal character quite unlike anything I’ve heard before; it’s rather ‘tubby’ and probably unsuitable for really large-scale pieces, but I’d love to hear it again, especially in early Franck.

The Texan George Baker is the odd one out, as he has chosen not to improvise but to programme three pieces he composed earlier. He plays the organ of Saint-Sulpice, Paris. Immortalised - if that’s the right word - in Dan Brown’s Grail-chasing thriller The Da Vinci Code, this magnificent 17th-century church has an equally fine Cavaillé-Coll, which sounds suitably imperious in Baker’s Ricercar. Based on the Lutheran chorale ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’ (Now come, Saviour of the Gentiles), this stirring music leaves one in no doubt as to the size and splendour of this great space. Thankfully, reverberation is well controlled, and in the gentle Berceuse-Paraphrase Baker manages to tame the beast and come up with music of surprising intimacy. Indeed, the organ’s luminous upper registers produce the loveliest sounds imaginable. As for the final piece, a rousing Toccata-Gigue, this will surely warm the hearts of organ buffs everywhere.

Anyone remotely interested in the improviser’s art should buy this recording. The CD is presented in a smart double gatefold case with the booklet tucked inside. Artist biographies would have been useful, as would details of the organs used. Minor quibbles, really, and not nearly enough to dampen my enthusiasm for this new disc.

Dan Morgan  

 


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