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Nicolas de GRIGNY (1672-1703)
Premier Livre d'Orgue

Messe d'orgue [60:18]
Veni Creator [13:39]
Pange lingua [8:17]
Verbum supernum [7:43]
Ave maris stella [9:45]
A solis ortus [8:41]
André Isoir (organ)
rec. 1992, Saint-Michel-en-Thiérache, France
RADIO FRANCE TEMPERAMENTS TEM316061/62 [60:18 + 48:28]

Nicolas de Grigny’s early death in 1703, aged only 31, deprived future generations of a great deal which his genius had to offer. Today his reputation rests solely on his Premier Livre d’Orgue, which is made up of a Mass and five Hymnes. Published in 1699, it is regarded as one of the greatest French organ works of its time. J.S. Bach, no less, was so struck by its quality that he copied it out entirely, by hand, for the purposes of study. Another beneficiary of de Grigny’s work was Buxtehude.

De Grigny was born into a family of musicians in Rheims in 1672, and studied with Nicolas Lebègue, a leading French Baroque composer, organist and harpsichordist. In 1697 he returned to his home city to become organist at the cathedral there. Two years later he wrote his Organ Book.

There is so much variety in de Grigny’s music, and it’s these startling contrasts that I find compelling. He grabs the attention of the listener in the noble and majestic opening Kyrie of the Mass. Then there’s the skilfully constructed five-part fugues scattered throughout, which Isoir articulates with pristine clarity and precision, careful teasing out the polyphonic lines. The jaunty rhythms of the Gloria’s Basse de Tompette ou de Cromorne, in which the playful trumpet is heard against a gentle accompaniment, adds an element of ebullience to the music.  The Agnus ends the Mass, as it began, with nobility and splendour.

The five Hymnes celebrate the church’s major feasts: ‘Veni Creator’ - Pentecost; ‘Pange lingua’ and ‘Verbum Supernum’ - Corpus Christi; ‘Ave maris stella’ – The Assumption; ‘A solis ortus’ - Christmas. To conform with the style of the day, verses for the organ alternated with sung chants. Some recordings provide this, but this one restricts itself to the organ settings only. If you are looking for a recording with both, then I’d recommend Serge Schoonbroodt’s cycle, performed in Poitiers Cathedral (Etoile Production EP0001), in which he intones the chants himself.

This is the second time Isoir has tackled the de Grigny oeuvre. These recordings were taped by Radio France at Saint-Michel-en-Thiérache in 1992. Twenty years earlier, the organist set down his interpretations for the Calliope label, using two organs – l’orgue Clicquot de la cathédrale Saint-Pierre, Poitiers and the Grand Orgue Jean Esprit Isnard de la Basilique de St Maximin la Sainte Baume. Since I have these earlier recordings, I made a head-to-head comparison. The two recordings are interpretively close, which is hardly surprising, and both adhere to very similar sounding registrations. The earlier set is more closely recorded, with some distance placed between the organ and the listener in the later version.

I am impressed by Isoir’s handling of registrations, in which he fully explores the Saint-Michel-en-Thiérache organ’s full potential. The liner notes, in French and English, give a brief history of the instrument and provide a list of its specifications. Radio France have achieved a warmer and more intimate sound than that found in the earlier set. The reissue of this 1992 cycle is a tribute to the great organist André Isoir who died in 2016.

Stephen Greenbank

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