Pierre COCHEREAU (1924-1984)
Symphonie Improvisée in five movements (1978) [30:30]
Symphonie Improvisée in five movements (1978)* [38:02]
Pierre Cochereau (organ)
rec. Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, 15 August 1978; *4 September 1978. ADD
SOLSTICE SOCD 275 [68:40]

This is French independent Solstice's eleventh release of improvisations by the great French organist Pierre Cochereau. He was famed for his recitals and improvisations across Europe, but particularly on the grand, grand organ of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, where he was organist from 1955 until his premature death. Previous discs have met with considerable critical acclaim; the last, aptly entitled "Pierre Cochereau - La Légende", was reviewed here. Solstice have also previously issued a CD of Cochereau's few composed works for organ (SOCD 163), as well as a recent and fascinating 'Cochereau: Hommage' (review).

This disc presents a re-mastering of two recordings from 1978 - breathtaking live performances of Cochereau in action at the height of his powers, improvising in front of an audience two five-movement symphonies for organ. The results are musically spectacular, and even though the sound quality is a bit on the raw side - there is even a tiny bit of inherited tape wobble in track 4 and again in track 6 - and the CD fairly pricey, these historic performances belong in every music-lover's collection.

The two works are very alike in some ways - the same instrument, temporal proximity, almost complete identity of shape and arrangement of movements, the September Symphony a slightly compressed and more tranquil version of the August. In both cases Cochereau gives his incredible imagination full rein, filling the Cathedral with dreamy pictures, spurts and floods of chordal drama, wending flights of fancy and the almost tangible sense of audience anticipation met with organist prospicience. The August Symphony differs most strikingly in energy and decibel levels, the themes being based in part on the Dies Irae following the death of Pope John Paul I a few days before the recital. The work builds to a fittingly exalting ending.

Though he may be suspected of just a little bias, Cochereau's teacher Marcel Dupré called his pupil a "phenomenon without equal in the history of the contemporary organ" - high praise indeed from Dupré, as likely to be described in such terms himself. Doubtless, as Anthony Hammond points out in his well-written notes, Cochereau would have tidied these works a little if he had subsequently written them up from a recording, but to listen to these extended, coherent, powerful Symphonies and reflect on the fact that these were thought up more or less on the fly, is awe-inspiring and humbling.

The CD comes in a 'digipack'-style case, the booklet housed less than ideally in a slot. The French-English booklet itself is high quality, with Hammond's informative notes and a couple of colour photographs, one of which shows the organ as it was in 1978. Hammond writes that Cochereau improvised thousands of symphonies over his lifetime - with luck, Solstice will have, or find, recordings of at least a few more for public delectation.

Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk

Awe-inspiring and humbling that this music was thought up more or less on the fly.