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Louis James Alfred LEFÉBURE-WELY (1817-1869)
Caprice original pour deux harmonicordes, Op.120 [10:10]
Sonate dramatique pour violon et piano, Op.157 [30:51]
Les Chants du foyer [14:23]
Improvisation [3:52]
Les Noces basques, Op.139 [4:00]
24 Etudes mélodiques pour le piano s’enchainant par des modulations [59:31]
La Noce bretonne, Op.50 No.4 [4 :21]
Marian Iacob Maciuca (violin)
Pascal Auffret (piano and harmonicorde)
rec. 2017/18, La Villès-Bousseau à Sainte-Nazaire, France
HORTUS 156-157 [127:08]

Reactions to the music of Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wely vary. Ridicule figures largely, followed by amusement, distaste, disgust, and anger that anyone should feel this music worth reviving from the obscurity into which it was plunged by the overshadowing creative talents of Franck, Saint-Saëns and Widor. Organists have long trotted out his infamous Sortie in B flat as a kind of risqué party piece to show that they do have a sense of humour, and publishers are delighted to bring out volumes of work by a profligate French organist/composer whose music has the benefit of being relatively easy to play, hugely accessible to the untrained ear and having long since fallen out of copyright.

We can put Lefébure-Wely into a historical context and say that he played a vital role in keeping French organ music afloat at a time when it was on its beam ends, and we can suggest that in the post-revolutionary climate of Paris, his skill in attracting mass audiences to concerts of his music, did much to consolidate the role of music in the Second Empire. That he was hugely popular is undeniable – the disc is subtitled “Prince des Claviers” after one of his many popular sobriquets (“Prince of Organists”) – and surrounded by those for whom mediocrity would seem an unattainable goal, he did stand out as a composer of his time. But history is full of such people, who played pivotal roles in their societies, but whose legacy is best confined to the footnotes of history and not brought out into the full glare of posthumous scrutiny. If Lefébure-Wely’s organ music generally veers towards the dire side of drivel, here we have a double disc of his music for piano, for violin and for harmonicorde which does nothing to redress the situation.

The Harmonicorde was a kind of harmonium designed by Alexandre Debain in 1842 which, according to Patrick-Alain Faure’s effusive booklet notes, was “the instrument that was to triumph in the Second Empire salons”. It had a bank of strings laid along the back, so that it forged an unholy alliance between the wheezing reed sounds of a harmonium and a kind of piano-cum-guitar-cum-cimbalom. It is quite obvious from this recording why the instrument so quickly and completely fell out of fashion. There may come a time when both this instrument and the composer are restored to their once glorious place as musical icons of an era, and if so this release is a prescient portent for a changed future when musical sensitivities are less dismissive of the banal than they are today, but if that is to be the case, I fear this release is far ahead of its time.

For, by today’s standards, most of this music is horribly banal. Indeed, much of the piano music which occupies the second disc is so banal that one becomes almost addicted to its awfulness. Perhaps it’s the same phenomenon as the late Florence Foster-Jenkins – a sound so unedifying as to transcend matters of taste and create almost its own following; the allure, we might say, of the car crash – you don’t want to see it, but you can’t tear your eyes away from the inevitable disaster.

I lay my cards unequivocally on the table; I find the music unedifying and of little worth to our age. But I do admire the efforts of Pascal Auffret who has not only mastered a lot of very difficult music, but actually seems to derive some pleasure from it which he endeavours, not without some success, to communicate to listeners. He certainly has his work cut out with the second disc of this two-disc set. Here we have 24 piano études, in all major and minor keys organised as major/relative minor through the circle of fifths, each lasting a little over a minute before ending abruptly and regurgitating the opening bars to provide a lumpy bridge unsubtly moving into the key of the next etude. It makes for intensely irritating listing, and on first hearing I thought that the needle must be jumping back to the beginning of the track – until, of course, I realised this was a CD and no needles were involved. I can do nothing but express enormous admiration to Auffret for learning all this stuff, and presenting it so securely – they may be short, but some of them, not least the D minor “Vivo”, are technically challenging.

The first disc opens with a real rarity, the recording of which Faure delightfully explains in his note. The problem of finding two harmonicordes in playing condition as well as two harmonicordistes, was circumvented by Pascal Auffret recording both parts on one harmonicorde and then leaving it to the engineers “to mix the two tracks”. I am not sure that the engineers have managed to achieve flawless ensemble between the two Auffrets, but it seems an awful lot of effort to expend over very expendable music. The Caprice original comprises three short movements of extremely limited invention and notable only for the strangeness of the sound – almost like a pair of accordions in league with shattered remnants from a glass harmonica and bits of a honky-tonk piano.

Coming next on the first disc, the sound of violin and piano should, by comparison, come across as something familiar, but something about this recording makes it too sound very strange. The acoustic is flat, and the placing of the instruments – the violin sounding as if it is by the bay window in a corner masked by a heavy plush curtain, while the piano sits beside the microphone in a thickly carpeted room – leads to a somewhat unsuccessful balance. The oddness of the sound is unfortunate, since the Sonate dramatique is possibly the most musically attractive piece here, and for once we can recognise a serious approach to the art of composing from someone whose notorious showmanship mostly led to the writing of music aiming at superficial effect and popular appeal. Lefébure-Wely could write a good melody when the mood took him, and there are several here – not least the lovely, charming theme of the graceful second movement – but he did tend to work these good melodies through a bit too much sequence and repetition. Romanian violinist Marian Iacob Maciuca puts his all into the violin part, drawing attention to the hints of the Beethovenian models which Lefébure-Wely clearly had in mind while writing the Sonata. Maciuca revels in the many fine moments in the work, luxuriating over the more expressive passages. Unfortunately, a mixture of Lefébure-Wely’s routine piano accompaniments, and Auffret’s rather heavy-handed and unsubtle handling of them, does not help convey the obvious musical interest in the music.

Auffret’s pianism generally lacks real finesse of touch, but his handling of the harmonicorde is in a higher league altogether. In the four pieces for harmonium published in 1866 as Les Chants du foyer he extracts from the instrument some delightfully expressive sounds, writing in his detailed booklet note that with the prayerful mood of the first three “we are nicely curled up in front of the fireplace”. The fourth piece – “Marche” – clearly takes its cue from Schubert’s Marche Militaire but with a central section which would not be out of place on a fairground carousel. Auffret manages to avoid letting this all descend into the ridiculous by a strong and invigorating momentum. However, with the dancing Improvisation of 1858 we come across the issue of muddy response with which all harmonium players are only too well acquainted. Much as Auffret tries to keep the piece bouncing along, the reluctant attack of the instrument makes it all sound more like a pig rooting around for truffles than a chef delicately slicing them to create a gourmet dish. I do, however, love the way the fingers of Auffret’s right hand periodically swoop off on their own extravagant flights of fancy. The titles of Les Noces basques and La Noce bretonne are, as Auffret points out, the most interesting thing about these two pieces, neither of which has anything to do with the Basque country or Brittany, the geographical elements of the titles being “quite interchangeable”.

Marc Rochester



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