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Gabriel PIERNÉ (1863-1937)
Piano Quintet in E minor, Op. 41 [40:13]
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937)
String Quartet in D minor, Op. 12 [23:08]
Piers Lane (piano)
Goldner String Quartet
rec. 8-10 May, 2013, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK
HYPERION CDA68036 [63:21]

Gabriel Pierné and Louis Vierne are two of the best and most underrated of French composers. Each thrived from around the turn of the century, both died in 1937 - the same year as Maurice Ravel and Charles-Marie Widor. They were both better-known as performers: Pierné as a conductor and Vierne as one of the most celebrated organists of all time. This disc, in conjunction with some other recent releases, makes a strong case for their importance and their legacies.
The big piece is Pierné’s piano quintet, with three sprawling movements that sometimes call to mind Franck. The first movement is a slow(ish) one which focuses on an insistent repeating figure, developing themes over it in a trancelike fashion. The fact that Pierné is able to sustain drama and narrative tension this way over thirteen minutes is remarkable, let alone that he channels Franck’s penchant for dark intensity. The contrasting second movement is a Zortzico dance, genial and charming, and a little topsy-turvy since parts are in 5/8 and later 20/8 (!) time. The finale somehow manages the crazy trick of bringing these two divergent moods together into a seamless whole.
It’s hard to compare Pierné’s style to other composers’; he’s unique. It’s hard to compare his piano quintet, too, because I’ve never heard another piece like it. This is a composer with a voice all his own. If you like this work, you’ll be ready to move on to his hour-long ballet Cydalise, available on Timpani with the Luxembourg Philharmonic. Cydalise is a masterpiece and incredibly fun, a piece I listen to and enjoy as much as Daphnis et Chloé or Bacchus et Ariane. Cydalise has everything: breathless love songs, winking flute banter, a madcap romp of a “dance lesson,” and a ballet-within-the-ballet parodying Renaissance styles.
Louis Vierne’s string quartet feels like an orchestral work that’s been reduced. You can just hear the full roar of the orchestra in some of the passages: the Sturm-und-Drang themes, violent climaxes, and rather generalized writing for each instrument all just beg for massed strings, low woodwinds, growling timpani. The big build-up three minutes into the first movement feels especially like a symphonic tutti. A whole lot happens, for a work that’s barely over twenty minutes, including a final fugue.
The Goldner String Quartet are on the edge of their seats, and in the quartet probably the edge of their techniques (remember, Vierne was not a string writer), but they can breathe more easily in the big Pierné piece, where the challenges come in making the huge work flow seamlessly and expressively. This I’ll judge a success, with much credit due to Piers Lane for his handling of the piano part.
Vierne’s quartet would probably be more famous if it were a short symphony. Pierné’s quartet is kept in obscurity by its difficulty and size, so I’m thankful to have a recording as capable and dedicated as this one. The recording venue, Potton Hall, is up to its usual high standards, as are its engineers and Hyperion’s booklet. I enjoyed this ear- and mind-bending programme quite a lot.
Brian Reinhart