Louis VIERNE (1870-1937)
Pièces de Fantaisie
First Suite Op. 51 (1926)
Second Suite Op.53 (1926)
Third Suite Op. 54 (1927)
Fourth Suite Op. 55 (1927)
Pierre Labric (organ)
rec. 12-13 November 1972, Abbey Church of Saint-Ouen de Rouen. ADD
List of individual pieces at end of review
SOLSTICE SOCD 290/1 [64:48+76:55]
More than forty years ago Pierre Labric was the first to record the complete organ works of Vierne. These particular discs, Volume 3 of the Solstice “reissue”, were originally recorded in 1972. As my colleague Byzantion has indicated in a review of Volume 1 [see link], the original masters for all the volumes were lost and the CDs have been compiled from copies of the master recordings and the original LPs. As one would expect the sound quality is very variable, although the Third and Fourth Suites sound better overall. The main purpose of this new version of the recordings is therefore to showcase Pierre Labric - still with us at the age of 91 as of this writing. He is a master organist and proponent of Vierne. Unfortunately he has made too few recordings.
Like Vierne’s earlier Pièces en Style Libre Op. 31 the Pièces de Fantaisie consists of twenty-four individual pieces, this time grouped into four suites. While the twenty-four pieces bear no overt relationship to each other, each suite’s components are carefully arranged emotionally and tonally to produce a complete entity. As would be expected, the suites demonstrate all of Vierne’s skills in both counterpoint and organ coloration. They also showcase his sometimes dissonant use of harmony and his individual melodic sense, not to mention his periodic flashes of wit.
Vierne is at the height of his powers in the Pièces de Fantaisie and while one would like to describe all of them, one can only pick a few that stand above the rest (see complete list below). The First Suite’s Prélude combines a sense of geniality with a toccata-like structure and the composer’s unique harmony immediately transporting us to Vierne’s world. The fifth piece, Requiem aeternam, was written in memory of the composer’s recently deceased brother Edouard. It features a heavily chromatic main theme, above a tolling two-note figure, that becomes increasingly dense in texture, before the piece succumbs in resignation. The Suite’s last piece is a Marche nuptial, but very far from Mendelssohn and Wagner. It is a passacaglia whose harmony becomes increasingly dissonant and texture increasingly dense (cf. Requiem aeternam) until it ends with a sense of claustrophobia. Perhaps Vierne was thinking of his own unsuccessful married life.
The Second Suite begins with a Lamento that encapsulates all of Vierne’s major compositional features into one small piece, while the fourth piece, Feux Follets (Will of the Wisps) is as impressionistic as the title would suggest. It revolves around the key of B-major and demonstrates the composer’s ability to use tonality combined with organ coloration to create an inimitable atmosphere. Clair de lune is one of the composer’s most beautiful shorter works, although it owes nothing to Debussy, and allows for a fair measure of dissonance before ending in a lovely coda. The suite ends with the well-known Toccata. Here Vierne is not competing with his master Widor; instead he produces a compact and reasoned structure which still generates a lot of excitement.
Although the Third Suite begins with the well-known Impromptu and concludes with the even better-known Carillon de Westminster, it is the third through fifth pieces that truly stand out. Étoile du Soir (Evening Star) has none of the sentimentality one might expect from its title. As in Feux Follets the composer’s sensitivity to key (here G-Sharp minor) is At the forefront as well as his ability to convey a wide variety of emotions through development of a simple motif. Its successor Fantômes, is a seven-part symphonic poem in which Vierne uses different organ “voices” to portray the seven different human voices of his programme. The composer is at his most grandiose in Sur le Rhin (On the Rhine). This is a monumental ternary structure with a first section built entirely from shifting chords contrasted with a gentler but still forceful middle section. The first section then returns, this time harmonically altered and expanded, before ending with almost overwhelming force.
Vierne’s Aubade, which begins the Fourth Suite, is one of his most joyous compositions, smoothly flowing from beginning to end. Cathédrales, like Sur le Rhin, uses massive chords, this time alternating with quiet sections for the reeds, to evoke the variety of emotions one feels in such buildings. Gargoyles are frequently found on cathedrals, but Gargouilles et chimères bears little emotional resemblance to Cathédrales. It consists of a single figure played only on clarinets, producing a sound that can only be described as ghastly, alternating with a more scherzo-like thematic variant on reeds and pedals for the chimera. As the Third Suite ended with the Westminster chimes, the Fourth Suite ends with the bells of St. Mary’s Church in Hinckley in Leicestershire (Les Cloches de Hinckley). Vierne stayed in that town during his second tour of the U.K. in 1925 and was kept awake all night by the bells. Two years later he used their chime as the basis for a sonorous - in the true sense of the word - and brilliantly constructed finale to the Pièces de Fantaisie.
As indicated above the sound quality of these discs precludes their recommendation as the prime Pièces de Fantaisie in anyone’s library. At present there are several competing sets, all in good sound, including a definitive set by Ben van Oosten (MDG) and a fascinating one by the polymath George C. Baker (also Solstice). The main strength of the Labric discs lies in his interpretative ability and his immersion in the world of Vierne. Labric emphasizes the gentler aspects of the composer’s personality, though he is perfectly capable of producing the appropriate force and descending to the depths of the composer’s frequent melancholy when required. His performance of each of the twenty-four pieces is well thought-out and his tempi are well-nigh perfect. Labric also preserves the needed balance between virtuosity, programmatic depiction, and exploration of Vierne’s unique personality. One must also mention the wonderful notes by Michel Roubinet. Each piece is not only fully described, but information on each of the twenty-four dedicatees is included. This is especially interesting as Vierne’s dedicatees comprise a comprehensive portrait of the “organ world” of the 1920s. In short these discs will prove fascinating for admirers of Vierne and for those interested in the French school of organ performance, but cannot be recommended as a standard set of these works.
List of individual pieces
First Suite Op.51
5. Requiem aeternam
6. Marche nuptiale
Second Suite Op.53
3. Hymne au soleil
4. Feux follets
5. Clair de lune
Third Suite Op.54
3. Étoile du soir
5. Sur le Rhin
6. Carillon de Westminster
Fourth Suite Op.55
5. Gargouilles et Chimères
6. Les cloches de Hinckley
Veteran and imperfect but magisterial. Fascinating but only for devotees of the composer and of the French organ school.
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