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Léon BOELLMANN (1862-1897)
Fantaisie in A [10:57]
12 Pieces for Organ, Op 16: Prélude [4:06]; Fugue [4:03]; Intermezzo [4:38]; Adagietto [3:59]; Carillon [3:43]
Deuxième Suite, Op 27 [1896] [18:36]
From Heures mystiques: Entrée in E flat [2:22]; Offertoire in G [4:49]; Sortie in D minor [3:02]
Suite Gothique, Op 23 [1895] 14:50]
Piet van der Steen (organ)
rec. 17 January 1977, Sint Augustinuskerk, Amsterdam: 8 July 2002, Sint-Petrus-en-Pauluskerk, Oostende, Belgium

Every organist knows Boëllmann’s Gothic Suite. Some of the more adventurous ones might know the Deuxième Suite. But very few have explored further, and for me, the Fantaisie in A, which was published posthumously and, according to the booklet notes, “was completely unknown before the appearance of this recording”, is completely new. Also something I do not recall hearing before is the Intermezzo from the 12 pieces. But, there again, I may have heard it and not noticed it; Piet van der Steen’s bubbling performance on the 1881 Cavaillé-Coll organ of Amsterdam’s Sint Augustinuskerk makes for utterly infectious listening and it is fascinating to hear in this performance how the piece anticipates Louis Vierne in its delicate flute filigree work.

Léon Boëllmann was born in the Alsace, studied at the Ecole Niedermeyer in Paris with Gigout, and earned a reputation as much as a critic and teacher as an organist and composer, dying a few weeks after his 35th birthday. In a strangely uninformative and oddly unbalanced article about him in Grove, no mention at all is made of his most famous and popular work, the Suite Gothique, yet by my reckoning there are somewhere in the region of 50 commercial recordings of the work currently available, and that excludes all those recordings which just give us the thrilling last movement Toccata. Given that the Suite Gothique is so well represented on disc, I doubt many will seek this new release out for that work; especially since it was not recorded on a Cavaillé-Coll, but on the 2000 Flentrop organ of the Sint-Petrus-en-Pauluskerk in Oostende, and the recorded sound does show something of its 20-year vintage.

The fascination of this disc, however, is in the other works Dutch organist Piet van der Steen has selected. Recorded back in 1977, the Fantaisie, Deuxième Suite, and extracts from Douze pièces were played on the Amsterdam Cavaillé-Coll, but given the wonderful clarity of the recording and the suppleness of Steen’s articulation, as well as his adventurous approach to registration, they most certainly do not show their age, and beyond the delightful Intermezzo, I am very much taken by his wonderfully fresh and buoyant performance of the Deuxième Suite.
The three extracts from Heures mystiques (recorded on the 2000 Flentrop rebuild of a 1907 Schyven in Oostende) are rather less interesting, both musically and in terms of sound. The organ certainly has power, but seems a little cumbersome, and does not always suit the Suite Gothique, which is a work with its fair share of subtle moments. On another instrument, I would be full of admiration for Steen’s performance. As it is, he presents a stirring and colourful performance, opening the work with a magisterial account of the Introduction-Choral, balancing dance and gothic-ness in a weightily-registered Menuet Gothique, oozing sentimentality and restfulness on the Prière, and, of course, chasing breathlessly through that ubiquitous Toccata and building up to a suitably melodramatic climax. But, in the end, it is the organ which lets it down, the pedals not so much thundering out that staunch theme at end as bumping along grudgingly.

Marc Rochester

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