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French Romantic Church Music
Elizabeth Barrow (soprano), Emily Tan, Paulina Vayenas (mezzo-sopranos), Leighton Triplow (tenor), James Emerson (bass)
Robert James Stove (organ)
rec. 24-26 November 2020, Camberwell Basilica, Melbourne, Australia
ARS ORGANI ARS003 [62:58]

Charming and delightful are the two adjectives which best describe this nicely packaged CD from Ars Organi. Robert James Stove seems to be the driving force behind this new Australian label, and has featured as performer on all the releases so far; the others being a programme of 17th and 18th century organ music by composers from the Hapsburg Empire, and a collection of Victorian and Edwardian English organ music. On this new release he is joined by a quintet of young Melbourne-based singers in an all-French programme. In addition to being an organist, Stove describes himself as a “(ahem) musicologist”, and has just completed a doctoral thesis on the organ music of Stanford as well as a book on the life of César Franck. That said, his own booklet notes do not delve into deep scholarship, but merely introduce the composers, not all of whom will be known even to the most ardent Francophile music-lover.

One of those unfamiliar names will be Cyprien Boyer, who, according to Stove’s note, is an “almost totally forgotten priest…who took lessons from Guilmant before he started employment at the seminary of Bergerac”. The Communion in A-flat major recorded here, is the ninth of a set of 12 pieces published in 1909, and is one of a handful of pieces here which stand out for being particularly charming and delightful despite its extreme brevity (it’s barely a minute long). With its flowing, cross-the-bar rhythms, which give it a slightly irregular feel, and its gentle melodic contours, it has a level of originality and distinction which sets it apart from many of the other organ solo pieces here. Stove is a sensitive and unpretentious player, not trying to elevate any of these solo pieces above their basic function as background sound to Sunday worship. He is sparing in his use of the resources of the Magahy organ of the Basilica of Our Lady of Victories in the Melbourne suburb of Camberwell, and there is little evidence from the gentle sounds he draws from this instrument, that it is a pretty substantial three-manual, 44-stop instrument built in 1920 and last restored in the 1990s. The sound is perhaps more English than French, but the Vierne Préambule, in particular works, well, as does the charming little Offertoire by Alexandre Cellier which occasionally ventures into labyrinthine chromatic territory.

Other organ miniatures are almost wholly quiet and reflective, with the string stops of the Camberwell organ given a thorough workout. These include what may well have been Marcel Dupré’s final work, Souvenir, the tiny scale of which Stove gauges admirably, exuding more the atmosphere of an English village church on a quiet Sunday than nostalgia for one of the last century’s most celebrated French organists/composers, and Vincent d’Indy’s Prelude in E-flat minor (which was once far more frequently played than it is today), which finds Stove in appropriately sorrowful mood. Some of the others – notably the Offertoires by both Franck and Charles-Alexis Chauvet – come across as rather dreary, and the only potentially upbeat piece is the Carillon on Three Notes by Gabriel Dupont, for which Stove finds a registration which is delicately sparkling rather than grandly glittering. The title provides ample indication of the work’s rather meagre musical content.

However, the real interest for me on this disc are the vocal works, which include a charmingly simple setting of Ave verum corpus by Boëllmann delicately sung by Leighton Triplow, and Widor’s rather more musically advanced Ave Maria, which highlights the angelic voice of Elizabeth Barrow. Both mezzo-sopranos have decidedly fragile voices, which are not over-stretched by the delicate setting of the Ave Maria by Saint-Saëns sung here by Emily Tan, or a Salve Regina by the generously-named Marie-Joseph-Alexandre Déodat de Séverac performed by Paulina Vayenas. It is James Emerson who gives us the most intriguing performance on the disc; Guilmant’s Versets sur Pange Lingua comprise five verses of the hymn alternating between Emerson chanting them unaccompanied and Stove providing Guilmant’s terse organ commentaries. Here we have the most expansive view of the organ as well as a voice of some robustness, able to hold its own throughout each of the hymn’s long verses.

Louis-Lazare Perruchot spent a quarter of a century directing the choir at the cathedral in Monaco. His somewhat confusing Memorare, which jerks along uneasily as a solo for tenor, ends with a sturdy duet for tenor and bass. Other than this, the only music here performed by multiple voices come from Guilmant’s 12 Motets, Op 14, and include a Tantum ergo for three voices, which is a simple, succinct harmonised hymn lasting less than two minutes, and a slightly more extended O Salutaris for tenor solo, SATB voices and organ. In all, the performances are as gentle and unassuming as the music, and while they will never set the world alight, they are all charming and delightful.
Marc Rochester

Alexandre GUILMANT (1837-1911)
Prière, Op 47 No 4 [2:25]
Absolution, Op 49 No 1 [3:04]
O Salutaris, Op 14 No 5 [2:05]
Tantum ergo, Op 14 No 4 [1:55]
Versets sur Pange lingua, Op 65 vol 3 [5:10]
En mémoire de Charles Bordes [3:01]
Sortie sur l’hymne; Quid nunc in tenebris tristis aberras, Op 65 vol 1 [2:21]
César FRANCK (1822-1890) Offertoire in F-sharp minor [3:25]
Joseph BONNET (1884-1944) Pater Noster, Op 8 No 1 [2:29]
Charles-Alexis CHAUVET (1837-1871) Offertoire sur un Noël [2:19]
Camille SAINT-SAENS (1835-1921) Ave Maria [3:07]
Cyprien BOYER (1853-1926) Communion in A-flat [1:10]
Charles-Marie WIDOR {1844-1937) Ave Maria, Op 59b [3:08]
Théodore SALOME (1834-1896) En forme de canon [1:42]
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937) Préambule, Op 31 No 1 [2:43]
Léon BOELLMANN (1862-1897) Ave verum corpus [2:43]
Gabriel DUPONT (1878-1914) Carillon sur trois notes [2:27]
Marie-Joseph-Alexandre DEODAT DE SEVERAC (1872-1921) Salve Regina [2:14]
Alexandre CELLIER (1883-1968) Offertoire pour le Jour d’Ascension [5:10]
Louis-Lazare PERRUCHOT (1852-1930) Memorare [2:28]
Vincent D’INDY (1851-1931) Prelude in E-flat minor, Op 66 [4:15]
Marcel DUPRE (1886-1971) Souvenir, Op 65b [2:03]

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