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,
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
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
-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
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
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,
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,
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.
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
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.