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Symphonie Romane
Marcel DUPRÉ (1886-1971)
Cortège et Litanie, Op.19 No.2 (1922/1924) [6:19]
Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937)
Symphonie Romane, Op.73 (1899) [33:12]
Charles TOURNEMIRE (1870-1939)
L’Orgue Mystique, No.25 – Fantaisie-Choral In Festo Pentecostes (1927-32) [9:08]
Marcel DUPRE (1886-1971)
Deuxième Symphonie, Op.26 (1929) [20:14]
Peter Stevens (organ)
rec. 11-12 September 2020, Buckfast Abbey, Devon, UK
AD FONTES AF006 [68:53]

What sheer joy it is to have any new release on the Ad Fontes label – the “home” label, as it were, of Buckfast Abbey in Devon. Before you even wrest the CD from its place, hidden, almost as an afterthought, in the back of a richly-endowed hard-back book full of lavish illustrations and beautifully printed pages of text, you just know you are in the presence of a label which cares. It cares about presenting something which will last and be treasured by those whose privilege it is to have a copy; it cares about its associations with a beautiful and historic place of worship; it cares about the Roman Catholic liturgy and musical heritage; it cares about its organ and its own musical mission; and, quite clearly, it cares about the quality of the art it sends out into the wider world. I would happily buy any Ad Fontes release just for the joy of holding it in my hands, and I do not really care what is on the CD. But, as it happens, with this – as with all the previous five Ad Fontes releases – what is on the CD is, if possible, even more marvellous than what envelopes it in its physical packaging. On this occasions Peter Stevens, current Assistant Master of the Music at Westminster Cathedral, is putting the Abbey’s magnificent Ruffatti organ through its paces in four wonderful works of the French romantic repertory – an area of the repertory which particularly suits both the instrument and the Abbey itself.

Peter Stevens has written his own booklet essay which fully lives up to the quality of everything else about this new release. In it he justifies his choice of programme on the grounds that “Widor, Tournemire and Dupré occupy a pivotal place in the French Romantic organ literature”. The headline work is the tenth and last of Widor’s symphonies for organ solo, the Symphonie Romane. As he evolved as a composer of solo organ symphonies, Widor developed a sense of architecture which, while giving the music an overall sense of coherence, means that we tend not to find the big stand-alone movements which litter, certainly, the first six symphonies. What holds the Symphonie Romane together is plainchant, and in particular the chants associated with Easter. That said, the central movements, both of which are slow and meditative, seem inclined to lose the thread of any musical argument by dwelling overlong on the contemplation of small musical ideas. Stevens does not entirely convince in his performance of these, and there is a nagging sense that at times both these movements become little more than a collection of sweet and tender sounds. But those sounds have rarely sounded so sweet or tender as they do on the Buckfast organ, and the flutes, in particular, have an almost ethereal purity of sound which is magnificently captured in David Hinitt’s excellent recording. Stevens’ sense of the symphony’s architecture is well to the fore in the two outer movements, especially the monumental first with its inspiration from the spectacular basilica of St Sernin in Toulouse (a glorious illustration of which is included in the booklet) and the glittering but strongly chant-infused finale, and supported by a fine technique, a sumptuous organ and a glorious acoustic, this is a very impressive recorded performance indeed.

Charles Tournemire is one of those composers whom organists know and revere without necessarily really knowing much about. We have all heard of his brilliant gifts as an improviser, recorded for posterity by Duruflé’s transcriptions, and know of the monumental series of suites (13 hours in total playing time) designed for every Sunday of the church’s year, L’Orgue Mystique, but beyond that he is, in Stevens’ own words, “a mysterious figure amongst composers”. Perhaps that mystery is compounded by the fact that it is difficult to discern a distinctive personal style in his music, and as often as not one finds oneself comparing his music with those of his more familiar contemporaries. Stevens has included the closing movement of the 25th Suite from L’Orgue Mystique, written for the Feast of the Pentecost. It opens with something very much like the joyful pealing of bells (Stevens suggests it represents “tongues of fire”) through which the chant “Veni, Sancte Spiritus” emerges, and it continues as a kind of moto perpetuo, various chants emerging through the haze of notes. But a sense that it is building up to some kind of spectacular climax is never fulfilled, and it rather wafts away into the distance, ending more with a question than a resounding full stop.

These two works are framed by music by Widor’s successor at St Sulpice and the man who beat Tournemire to the post of Professor of Organ at the Paris Conservatoire, Marcel Dupré. I have to confess to a certain personal dread when I see Cortège et Litanie on a programme; not because it dislike the piece - quite the reverse, I adore it – but because it is one of those pieces of music which, once heard, lives in the memory for weeks, and no amount of imposed Bach, Beethoven or Wagner can dislodge it. Somehow, though, that problem does not arise here. I find nothing wrong in Stevens’ performance, and it certainly sounds glorious on the Buckfast Ruffatti, but somehow it does not stick in the mind; there is a slightly unmemorable quality about the performance – it goes through the motions, but never lodges in the emotions, if you like. The same cannot be said for Stevens’ splendid account of the Second Symphony, first performed by the composer on the great Willis organ of Alexandra Palace and, perhaps, not necessarily best suited to the hallowed and incense-laden acoustical environment of Buckfast Abbey. But Stevens lays his cards on the table straight away with a jagged, nervously-chattering first movement, full of brilliant virtuoso fingerwork, and bustling around the organ with unflagging energy. A certain impudence with a slightly sarcastic edge informs his superbly perky performance of the second movement, while the swashbuckling Toccata with which the Symphony concludes comes across full of swagger and self-confidence, with a lovely growling reed putting in a menacing appearance around 2:31. A super performance to round off a really super disc.

Marc Rochester

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