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French Virtuoso Organ Music
Marcel DUPRÉ (1886-1971)
Variations sur un Noël, op.20 (1922) [10:37]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Fantaisie No. 1 in E flat major (1857) [4:21]
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937)
Feux Follets, from 24 Pièces de fantaisie: Deuxième Suite op.53 no.4 (1926) [3:36]; Naïades, from 24 Pièces de fantaisie: Quatrième Suite, op.55, no.4 (1927) [4:05]; Toccata in B flat major from 24 Pièces de fantaisie: Deuxième Suite op.53, no.6 (1926) [3:48]
Jacques CHARPENTIER (1933-2017)
L’Ange à la trompette (1954) [7:37]
Marcel DUPRÉ
Symphony No.2, op.26 (1929) [18:07]
Gillian Weir (organ)
rec. 1976, Hradetzky Organ, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, UK
ELOQUENCE 481 8742 [52:47]

I remember buying the original 1977 vinyl album of French Virtuoso Organ Music played by Gillian Weir in the Symphony One record shop in Bath Street, Glasgow (long closed). It was my introduction to the organ music of Marcel Dupré. Like many of my LPs, this one was disposed of when moving home.

The opening work is Dupré’s well-loved Variations sur un [Vieux] Noël, op.20. The story goes that it was composed during a train journey in the United States. Structurally, the piece consists of ten variations on the French carol ‘Noël nouvelet’. The Variations themselves are of three types: melodically unaltered with the ‘interest’ in the accompaniment, those where the tune becomes well and truly hidden in the texture and finally where the melody is heard in canon (following each other around).  The final variation presents the carol as the subject of a fugue with various entries using the same theme but written in different note values. The work ends with an impressive carillon, bringing the work to a breath-taking conclusion. The trick in playing this work is to exploit that maximum amount variety derived from the registrations. Gillian Weir rises to the challenge here in presenting a vibrant palette of colourful stops.

The track listing seems to have got a wee bit confused with details of Saint-Saëns’ Fantaisie. It states that it is op.159. Looking at the composer’s catalogue indicates that this opus number was applied to a song: ‘Hymne à la paix’ composed in 1919 for high voice and piano. Now, Saint-Saëns wrote three Fantaisies for organ: No.1 in E flat major (no opus number) (1857), No.2 in D flat major op.101 (1895) and No. 3, op.157 in C major (1919). The work that Gillian Weir has so brilliantly recorded is in fact the Fantaisie No.1: I have checked this to the score. This was the composer’s earliest published work. This Fantaisie is conceived in two parts, with a ‘bubbling’ opening section where ‘flutes chase one another across the manual’, whilst the second part is a feisty march closing with a triumphant coda. It remains the composer’s best-loved work for the King of Instruments (aside from the ubiquitous Organ Symphony). 

Any extracts from Louis Vierne’s 24 Pièces de Fantaisie are always worthy additions to any recital. Gillian Weir has included three excellent examples. ‘Feux Follets’ from the second suite of this collection is one of the composer’s most ‘impressionistic’ pieces. The title is translated as ‘Will o’ the Wisp’. A glance at the score shows that this is a seriously tricky piece, despite it relatively restrained mood. It could be described as a scherzo in search of a tune which never quite appears.

‘Naïades’ (which is spelt in the track listing as ‘Naides’) is another virtuosic scherzo. The title relates to mythical female beings, the Water Nymphs, often associated with streams and running water. This liquid allusion is made with increasingly complex scales, subtle chromaticism and well-contrived impressionistic devices. It is my favourite piece on this CD and is played with bewitching craft.

The ‘Toccata’ is a splendid example of the genre. It is written in the ‘difficult’ key of B flat minor (five flats) and is a perpetuum mobile, with little respite.  Demanding an exceptional technique, this work presents a ‘relentlessly drumming’ sound which leads to a triumphant and convincing conclusion. It remains one of Louis Vierne’s most popular pieces.

Jacques Charpentier’s ‘L’Ange a la Trompette’ was his debut organ work. It was composed in 1954 whilst he was still a student. The music has several influences including Jehan Alain, Olivier Messiaen and Hindu music of which Charpentier made a special study. The title, ‘The Angel with the Trumpet’ refers to the Angel of the Apocalypse in the New Testament book of Revelation. The music conjures up an image of ‘angelic beings flood[ing] in from every corner of the universe, spread across the sky in their awesome magnificence.’ It is hard to understand why this early masterpiece is so infrequently played.

Marcel Dupré’s hugely powerful Symphony No.2 in C sharp minor, op. 26 was published in 1929. The opening movement balances several ‘panels’ of contrasting music including a harsh and violent opening passage, scuttering semiquavers, a quiet but menacing excursion on soft string stops and a grotesque ‘fanfare’. The ‘Intermezzo’ is hardly relaxing. This music is ominous and strangely astringent. The final movement is a blistering ‘Toccata’ which ticks all the boxes for a classic French ‘finale’. Here the sinister chords, which may suggest a ‘march’ are balanced by a short section of uneasy repose, before the piece concludes with powerful peroration based on the music previously heard. 

It is redundant to state that Gillian Weir presents a masterclass in French organ music performance on this CD and equally unnecessary to maintain that the three manual Hradetzky Organ in Royal Northern College of Music is a splendid instrument. The remastering of the ‘old’ 1976 vinyl recording is near perfect. The readable and informative liner notes are written by Gillian Weir specially for this reissue. The essential technical specification of the organ is included.

I noted above that I got rid of this LP many years ago. Since that time, I have attended several of Gillian Weir recitals and I have heard the Hradetzky Organ on a couple of occasions but it is great to have this exciting, technically demanding and imaginative recording in my library once again.

John France

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