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Louis VIERNE (1870-1937)
Organ Symphonies – Volume 3
Symphony No.5, Op.47 (1924) [45:55]
Symphony No.6, Op.59 (1930) [40:07]
Stephen Tharp (organ)
rec. 2010/14, Saint-Sulpice, Paris
AEOLUS AE11191 SACD [86:06]

Aeolus have now reached the third and final volume of their traversal of Louis Vierne's Six Organ Symphonies. The organist in the first two volumes was Daniel Roth; the services of the American organist Stephen Tharp have been enlisted for this recording. The instrument remains the same: the magnificent 1862 organ built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, housed in Saint-Sulpice, Paris. One innovation in this issue is the presentation. The two discs come in a gatefold. Disc one is an SACD containing both symphonies, with a total running time of 86 minutes. As a hybrid, it can also be played as a CD Audio of the Fifth Symphony. The second disc is a CD Audio of the Sixth Symphony. I reviewed the release as a CD Audio.

Louis Vierne was the semi-blind organist of Notre Dame from 1900 until his death from a heart attack at that very console. It happened towards the end of a recital on the evening of 2 June 1937. His six organ symphonies, composed over a thirty year period, represent the apogee of his compositional career. At the time of his demise, he had begun making sketches on a seventh symphony, which were sadly never completed. The Third Symphony seems to have proved the most popular over the years, but my particular favourite is the Fifth.

The Fifth Symphony dates from 1923-1924. It is in five movements, and marks a forward progression into a more challenging world of increasing dissonance and atonality. With complex harmonies and tortuous chromaticism, and shot through with Wagnerian leitmotifs, the symphony reflects the deeply personal sorrows which the composer experienced in his own life. The composer Jean Huré wrote of its “gripping harshness, bitterness, and severity”. The opener is tormented and implacable. This is followed by a nightmarish fantasy-like movement. A Scherzo precedes an implacable Larghetto. It is only in the finale that a more positive and upbeat mood presides.

The Sixth Symphony, penned in 1930, was dedicated to the Canadian organist Lynnwood Farnham, a champion of French organ music, who had died that same year. Maurice Duruflé gave the premiere in 1934 at Notre-Dame. Once again it is in five movements, and is a more confident work than its predecessor, capturing some of the sunlit radiance of the Mediterranean. The first movement is dramatic and highly chromatic. Then comes a dreamy, subdued Aria followed by a mercurial Scherzo. The Adagio is dark, anguished, haunting and brooding, paving the way for an ebullient finale in sonata-rondo form.

Tharp is fully attuned to the architecture and structure of these densely constructed and monumental scores. I was particularly struck by the quiet moments, where he draws you into Vierne’s intimate world, revealing the music’s hidden charms. Registration choices are varied and imaginative. The organ’s specifications are included in the booklet.

Saint-Sulpice is a cavernous expanse (I have visited it on two occasions) but the expert engineers have tamed the acoustic by careful microphone placement. That allowed the spectacular instrument’s sonic splendour to be vividly profiled. I was amazed by the amount of detail revealed.

Now, I deeply regret not having heard the previous volumes in the series. If they are pitched at the same level as this one, the whole series will constitute a reference cycle.

Stephen Greenbank

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