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Pierre Cochereau in concert at Notre Dame in Paris
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Prelude and Fugue in B minor, BWV 544 [14:21]
Choral "O Mensch bewein dein Sünde gross", BWV 622 [6:01]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Prelude and Fugue in C minor, Op. 37/1 [7:58]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Chorale No. 2 in B minor [13:09]
Eugène GIGOUT (1844-1925)
Toccata in B minor [2:38]
Louis VIERNE (1924-1984)
Clair de lune op. 53/5 (1926) [8:05]
Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986)
Prelude and Fugue on the name of A.L.A.I.N. Op. 7 [10:42]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Le Banquet Céleste [6:34]
rec. live, 1969-75 Notre-Dame, Paris
SOLSTICE SOCD310 [79:27]

The French label Solstice have done much to preserve the legacy of Pierre Cochereau (1924-1984). They’ve released several fine volumes of the organist’s recordings over the past few years. I was first awakened to his artistry with an 8-CD set of the complete organ works of Louis Vierne, completed by the American, George C. Baker and released by Solstice in 1994 (SOCD 911/8 also SOCD 277-9). Cochereau’s discographical legacy, with some rare exceptions, was recorded in Notre Dame, whilst he was organist there from 1955 until 1984.

After a brief dalliance with the violin and piano, Cochereau settled for the organ as his instrument of choice. At the Paris Conservatoire his teachers were André Fleury and Marcel Dupré who referred to his student as a "phenomenon without equal in the history of the contemporary organ". He also studied harmony with Maurice Duruflé. Cochereau forged a three-pronged career as organist, composer and teacher. His compositional skills were directed mainly towards improvisation, within and at the end of services, and ‘Cochereau: The Art of Improvisation’ (Solstice) (FYCD 059) was produced, not only to display his talents as an improviser, but to showcase the full glories of the Cavaillé-Coll Organ of Notre Dame, Paris.

Generally speaking, Cochereau employs an adventurous choice of registrations in these performances, which reveals the myriad colours and dynamic range of this princely instrument. For me, it is the Mendelssohn Prelude and Fugue in C minor, Op. 37/1 which is the highlight. Mendelssohn writes well for the organ, and this work displays a wealth of ingenuity and invention, clearly showing the influence of J.S. Bach, the composer he most admired. At the end of the fugue, Cochereau builds up to a breathtaking climax, guaranteed to knock you sideways.

Disappointing is the opening of the Gigout Toccata, which sounds as though it was recorded in a wind tunnel. The unusual choice of registrations for the opening does not seem to match the character of the music. Things improve, though, as the piece progresses.

Less than two weeks before the Duruflé Prelude and Fugue was aired, another live performance of the piece was recorded by Marie-Madeleine Duruflé on the same organ in Notre Dame. This was released by Solstice and reviewed by me a few months ago. It is interesting to compare the two readings. Marie-Madeleine Duruflé’s choice of registrations allows greater clarity, with her more refined articulation, especially in the opening few minutes. I find the textures in Cochereau’s performance muddied. She is also marginally brisker.

In contrast to the dramatic pieces Cochereau plays, we have the peace and tranquillity which permeates Vierne’s Clair de lune. The slow meditative quality of Messiaen’s Le Banquet Céleste (Heavenly Feast) can make the piece sound monotonous. Not so in Cochereau’s hands, where he invests it with an other-worldly quality, transfixing the listener.

The variety and diversity of what is on offer here make this a compelling release, enabling us to savour the full scope and personality of the Notre Dame’s Cavaillé-Coll instrument. Cochereau’s tempi in the live situation are, on the whole, more animated than in his studio recordings. Sound quality is for the most part ideal, and very little audience noise is detected, only amounting to a little rustling.

Stephen Greenbank


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