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Célébrations:Les Musiciens et la Grande Guerre
- Volume 8 Georges KRIÉGER (1885-1914)
Toccata (1914) [6:37] Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Zwei Stücke für Orgel: No. 1 Präludium [2:07] No. 2 (Sans titre) [2:50] Nadia BOULANGER (1887-1979)
Pièce sur des airs populaires flamands (1917) [6:10] André DEVAERE (1880-1914)
Les Bourdons de Notre-Dame de Courtrai (1914) [9:38] Charles Marie WIDOR (1844-1937)
Salvum fac populum tuum, op.84 (1916) [5:43] Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Sonata for organ no.2, ‘Eroica’, op.151 (1917) [25:12] Frederick KELLY (1881-1916)
Christmas Prelude (1915) [3:55] Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Rhapsody no.3, op.17/3 (1918) [8:02] Marcel DUPRÉ (1886-1971) Poème Héroïque, op.33 (1935) [7:53) Harvey B. GAUL (1881-1945)
Chant for Dead Heroes (1919) [6:23]
Philippe Brandeis (organ)
Les Cuivres de la Garde Républicaine/Sébastien Billard
rec. 2014, Cathedral of Saint-Louis des Invalides, Paris HORTUS 708 [85:38]
Over the past couple of years, we have seen in the UK a constant stream of recordings of music connected with the Great War. For me, the most memorable have been ‘Blow Out, Ye Bugles’ by Truro Cathedral Choir (Regent REGCD451) and Robin Tritschler’s fine recital ‘No Exceptions, No Exemptions’ (Hyperion SIGCD401), though there have been many more fine ones. These discs have in many cases brought to our attention talented composers lost in the fighting who might otherwise have been wholly forgotten. However, these have understandably been mostly British composers, and we need to be reminded that there were many equally talented musicians from other countries who were either lost or adversely affected by the war.
The French label Hortus has brought out an extraordinary and fascinating series of issues called ‘Musicians and the Great War’. These deal with a wide range of subject matter, from the music of Albéric Magnard, who died defending his own home, to the playing of the great cellist Maurice Maréchal. The present disc, ‘Célébrations’, is the eighth in the series, and is devoted to music for organ, with and without brass instruments. The organ in question is that in the Cathedral of St. Louis, which lies at the heart of the huge complex of Baroque buildings in Paris known collectively as ‘Les Invalides’. The organist is the splendid Philippe Brandeis, well-known for exploring unusual and interesting repertoire. He combines in some of the numbers here with a brass ensemble drawn from the orchestra of the Republican Guard.
However, the music here is far from exclusively French. Thus we have Hindemith from Germany, Stanford and Howells from Britain, Fred Kelly from Australia, Harvey B. Gaul from the USA and the Belgian André Devaere.
So this is an eclectic collection, and the quality of the music is variable, too. Georges Kriéger, born in Poligny, was a young composer of great promise, as this fine Toccata makes clear. It features a great swinging tune, and the piece would make a refreshing alternative to the dear old Widor Toccata for wedding days — if you can find an organist able to play it, that is. Kriéger was killed in action at Coubesseaux right at the start of the war, in September 1914.
Paul Hindemith is represented by two short but highly characteristic pieces. He took part in campaigns in Northern France and Belgium, and these hitherto unknown pieces were composed in 1918. Both are restrained and quite mysterious, with sliding chromatic harmonies – though the second, untitled one grows to a startlingly affirmative conclusion.
Courtrai — or Kortrijk, to give it its Flemish name — is a town in southern Belgian close to the French border. André Devaere was born there in 1890, a young musician of prodigious talent, whose Les Bourdons de Notre-Dame de Courtrai is found on track 5. A ‘bourdon’ is (in this context) an organ-pipe, usually of quite dark tone, and this is a highly impressive and sustained composition that makes use of that type of coloration. It rarely rises above piano, and is built on various repeated patterns, or ostinati, sometimes shadowy in the bass, sometimes more bell-like.
In Widor’s Salvum fac populum tuum op.84, the brass (‘cuivres’) of the Republican Guard are heard for the first time in all their splendour. This is an impressive piece, well worth hearing; the title is taken from the text of the Te Deum (translating as ‘Lord, save Thy people’). It develops a sense of struggle and gritty determination, as befits a piece written in 1916 during the darkest, most daunting months of the war. With its sturdy character and bold outlines, this is a superb occasional work – ceremonial without being triumphalist.
It was very pleasing to come across music by Frederick Kelly, namely his Christmas Prelude for organ, on track 10. Beware: Hortus have their indexing wrong; there is no track 10 listed. So this Christmas Prelude appears as track 11. Kelly was born in Sydney, but came to school at Eton when he was eight. He became an Oxford rowing Blue, and even competed in the London Olympics in 1908. Before his death in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, he composed some highly attractive music, of which this tranquil prelude is an excellent example. It also acts as an oasis of calm amongst the often febrile music that surrounds it.
Herbert Howells took no active part in the Great War: his health was life-threateningly poor at this time — though he lived to a hearty ninety-one years. He did however suffer along with so many in London during the Zeppelin air-raids, and the booklet notes suggest that it was one such experience that prompted this stressful but rather magnificent Rhapsody. However, as in some of the other organ pieces, there is a problem with the recording, in that when the music is quiet, the resonant acoustic means that all is reduced to something of an indistinct mumble. This is unfortunate, because, in Howells in particular, this is when ideas are generated that are important in the unfolding of the piece and much of the momentum is thus lost.
The disc closes with an impressive if imperfect work, the Chant for Dead Heroes by the American Harvey B. Gaul; how very American to insist on that middle initial. There is power in the slow build–up of the funeral march rhythm, but the basic material is markedly inferior to, for example, Gurney’s War Elegy.
To summarise briefly the works on the remaining tracks: Nadia Boulanger’s Pièce sur des airs populaires flamands – ‘Piece on Popular Flemish Airs’ – is harmless fun, with a mischievous final cadence; Stanford’s Sonata no.2 ‘Eroica’ is deeply disappointing to a fervent Stanford admirer like me – a very tedious piece, whose most interesting feature is its persistent use of the Marseillaise; and Marcel Dupré’s Poème Héroïque of 1935, of which the less said the better.
One or two duds then; but not enough to detract from the many excellent and rare items on this valuable CD.