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RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Joseph-Guy ROPARTZ (1864-1955) Complete Organ Works
Markus Eichenlaub (organ)
rec. 2006-7, Parroquia de Santa María la Real, Azkoitia, Spain AEOLUS AE10391 SACD [75:39 + 75:15]
Over the past few years there’s been a determined effort from the record labels to resurrect the music of Joseph-Guy Ropartz, after decades of neglect. Last year I reviewed a disc of his piano music on Toccata Classics, which I enjoyed very much. I’m grateful to now have the opportunity to do likewise for this newly released double album of his complete organ music, none of which I’ve encountered before. I see that some years ago Pavane issued a 2CD set of the composer’s organ music played by Jean-Pierre Lecaudey (ADW 7393/4 - review).
Ropartz was blessed with longevity, living into his nineties. He originated from Guingamp, Côtes-d'Armor, Brittany, born into a family of some wealth. He studied under Theodore Dubois (harmony) and Jules Massenet (composition) at the Paris Conservatoire, where he became friends with the Romanian composer Georges Enescu. He later studied organ with César Franck. In 1894 he became director of the Conservatory at Nancy, a post he held for twenty-five years. This was followed by a ten-year stint (1919-29) in a similar position in Strasbourg. He retired in 1929, but continued to compose until 1953, when he was struck down by blindness. He died two years later.
Ropartz grew up around the ‘King of Instruments’ and, as a boy, heard many fine examples, especially those in Rennes. Later, in Paris he had the opportunity both to hear and play the capital’s finest. Many of the registration suggestions for his pieces were based on the staples of Cavaillé-Coll and Merklin instruments that he encountered. His organ music spans a period from around 1885-1917, with the exception of the second volume of Au Pied de l'Autel, which came much later in 1942. The music is couched in Romantic terms, but clearly moves towards a more advanced compositional language. The influence of Wagner and Franck is evident. Salient features include chromaticism, frequent modulations and a penchant for syncopation. It explores a broad emotional range from heady triumphalism to brooding introspection. Not all of it is geared towards a liturgical context either. The composer incorporates Breton folklore occasionally, with depictions and recollections of favorite landscapes.
The imposing flourish which heralds the Introduction et Allegro Moderato makes a fitting opening to the recital, as well as demonstrating the power of the Cavaillé-Coll instrument. A serene cantabile sits at the centre, providing some contrast. In the first of the Trois pièces, the composer revisits his roots, and in the Fugue his adept contrapuntal skill is very much in evidence. His origins are also recalled in Rhapsodie sur deux Noëls populaires de la Haute-Bretagne. The Premières et Secondes Vêpres des Saintes Femmes fulfil a more liturgical function, with five antiphons for the psalms and two for the Magnificat. ‘Veni electa mea’ and ‘Ista est Speciosa’ (Nos 4 & 5) are particularly attractive, radiating an inner calm and composure. I was interested to read that the Deux petites pieces were dedicated to Louis Thirion, his student, and a composer I discovered only last year when I reviewed a CD of his chamber music. The less technically demanding Au pied de l'autel demonstrate Eichenlaub’s imaginative registration choices.
Six Pièces make up the bulk of disc 2, with the Trois méditations interspersed throughout. Fantasie and Sortie straddle either end, the former a mighty edifice of fifteen minutes duration, a veritable call to arms. The latter, dance-like in character is a tour-de-force. The jaunty, rousing rhythms could provide a closing voluntary to a service. Trois méditations offer some restraint, their diaphanous textures portrayed by bordons, gambas and the like. Prélude Funèbre’s ardent melody hovers over a gently undulating bass.
Christoph Martin Frommen, responsible for producing this recording, has provided an interesting history of the organs of the parish church of Santa Maria la real. The organ featured, the fifth instrument documented since 1556, dates from 1897 and was built by the French Cavaillé-Coll company. It was the last important instrument that the founder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll was personally involved in. The organ underwent a restoration in 1976, and a clean in 1990, when its original pitch was raised. The acoustic of the Azkoitia church showcases this impressive instrument to the full. With stunning SACD sound, everything is clear and well-defined. Markus Eichenlaub’s mastery of registrations and dynamic gradients provides a wealth of colour and contrast, exploiting the instrument’s potential to the full. His informed musicianship does full justice to these alluring scores. The booklet notes, which include organ specifications, are in English, German and French. The gatefold incorporates some handsomely produced photographs of the church and its organ.
This is music that certainly deserves a wider currency, and Ropartz enthusiasts and organ buffs, especially, will find much to savour. This is a set I will be returning to often.
Stephen Greenbank Complete contents:
Introduction et Allegro Moderato (1917) [9:29]
Sur un thème breton (from ‘Trois pièces’) (1894) [5:03]
Intermède G major (from ‘Trois pièces’) [6:23]
Fugue (from ‘Trois pièces’) [7:11]
Premières et Secondes Vêpres des Saintes Femmes (1897/8) [16:47]
Rhapsodie sur deux Noëls populaires de la Haute-Bretagne (1917) [7:40]
Offertoire Pascal (1894) [7:12]
Andante con moto (from ‘Deux petites pièces’) (? date) [4:13]
Poco lento (from ‘Deux petites pièces’) [3:16]
Au pied de l'autel Vol. 2 No. 5: Allegretto(1942) [2:47]
Au pied de l'autel Vol. 1 No. 37: Andante espressivo [2:04]
Au pied de l'autel Vol. 1 No. 12: Allegro [3:23]
Fantaisie en la mineur (1896-1901) [15:05]
Trois méditations (No. 3) (1917) [7:20]
Prière pour les trespasses (1896-1901) [10:12]
Prélude Funèbre (1896-1901) [7:59]
Prière (1896-1901) [7:06]
Trois méditations (No. 1) (1917) [5:16]
Thème varié (1896-1901) [4:04]
Trois méditations (No. 2) (1917) [8:44]
Sortie (1896-1901) [9:24]