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Louis VIERNE (1870-1937)
The Complete Organ Symphonies
Symphony No.1, Op.14 (1899) [39:26]
Symphony No.2, Op.20 (1903) [34:15]
Symphony No.3, Op.28 (1911) [29:29]
Symphony No.4, Op.32 (1914) [32:53]
Symphony No.5, Op.47 (1924) [42:14]
Symphony No.6, Op.59 (1930) [32:18]
Roger Sayer (organ)
rec. and filmed at the Temple Church, London, 2020
DVD Region: All, NTSC
FUGUE STATE FILMS FSFDVD014 DVD/CD [DVD: 210:35 & 2 CDs: 210:35]

Louis Vierne forged a distinguished career as an organist and composer. He was born almost blind due to congenital cataracts, with surgery partially restoring his sight when he was six years old. He studied the organ with Franck and Widor at the Paris Conservatoire, where he clinched First Prize in 1894. In 1901 he took up the post of titular organist at Notre Dame. There he remained until 1937. In that fateful year he gave a recital on the evening of 2 June, dying of a heart attack at the console . 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 for a seventh symphony, which was sadly never completed. The six organ symphonies are undoubtedly his best known works.

Vierne began where Franck and Widor left off in developing the genre of the organ symphony, inspired by the orchestrally-conceived Cavaillé-Coll instruments around at the time. Their unifying cyclical structures were inspired by the Franckian style. Apart from No. 1 which has six movements, all of the others have five. Each is in a minor key, with No. 1 in D minor and the subsequent five in ascending notes of the scale, ending with No. 6 in B minor. As a body of work they’re intensely dramatic, ingeniously constructed and breathtakingly beautiful. Their potency derives from their shifting chromaticism, tonal ambiguity and pungent harmonies. It’s hardly surprising that this wealth of compositional endeavour attracted the attention of Debussy, and was a significant influence on the young Messiaen.

Vierne pays tribute to his illustrious predecessor Johann Sebastian Bach in the opening two movements of the First Symphony (1898-99), titling them Prelude and Fugue. The opening notes of the Prelude return in the finale’s main theme. The Pastorale exudes lyricism, with the central episode haunting in character. The Andante is ardent and captivating, acting as a prelude to the heroic finale. In 1903, when he had been in post as organist of Notre Dame for almost three years, the composer penned his Second Symphony, a work showing significant advances on its predecessor. It was his first attempt at cyclical composition. The opening Allegro is dark and turbulent. It’s followed by a Choral, a tribute to his teacher César Franck. Here Sayer achieves some exquisite luminous textures. Then there’s a humorous Scherzo preceding a tranquil Cantabile, realized with clarinet and string stops. The finale makes its impact with staccato chords ushering in a martial theme.

The Third Symphony, bearing a dedication to his pupil Marcel Dupré, was composed against a backdrop of personal loss and anguish. The year was 1911. The work, noted for its concision, became the most popular of the six. The opener is imposing, and it’s followed by a Cantilène in which Sayer achieves some radiant, diaphanous sonorities. In the Adagio, Vierne seems to ponder his afflictions, yet this is put to one side in the effervescent finale. Three years elapsed before the Fourth Symphony appeared. It’s cyclical in structure and begins with a brooding Prelude. The fourth movement Romance must be one of the composer’s most beautiful creations, its long lyrical lines set against an undulating accompaniment. Energy and drama sum up the final movement, dispatched by Sayer with infectious zeal and alacrity.

The Fifth Symphony dates from 1923-1924 and marks a forward development in the composer’s compositional technique. Harmonies are more complex, there’s increasing dissonance and the appearance of Wagnerian leitmotifs. Dark of mood, it reflects the composer’s deep personal sorrows: lover’s rejection, tragic deaths of his loved ones, accidents and blindness. The opening Grave is dark and austere and precedes an Allegro molto marcato of forward drive and thrust. Lighter buoyant textures mark the Scherzo. The larghetto is once again dark and implacable with the finale presenting something more upbeat and positive.

In 1930 came the composer’s sixth and final Symphony. He dedicated it to the Canadian organist Lynnwood Farnham, a champion of French organ music who had died that same year; it was premiered at Notre-Dame in 1934 by Maurice Duruflé. Capturing some of the sunlit radiance of the Mediterranean, there’s more confidence all round. Its colouristic range and harmonic boldness paved the way for the future works of Olivier Messiaen. It has a delightful puckish Scherzo and closes with a grandiose, ebullient final movement.

The filmed performances on the DVD are an added bonus, and will appeal especially to organists. They were made during lockdown, and Sayer does his own page turning.  There are several camera angles which add some variety. All in all it provides a visual and sonic feast.

Sayer’s superb performances should win these captivating works many friends. The magnificent Temple Church organ is the ideal instrument to showcase them. The array of registration choices is imaginative and diverse.

This crowd-funded venture has been timed to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 1870. The beautifully produced package consists of a sturdy gatefold housing the two CDs and DVD. The 39 page booklet is deserving of special praise. The annotations are provided by Rosie Vinter, herself an organist and choral director. Each Symphony is discussed in detail, with musical illustrations scattered throughout. Roger Sayer performs on the magnificent 1923/1954/2013 Harrison and Harrison organ of the Temple Church, London. Full specifications of the instrument are included in the booklet. The sound quality is first rate. The recordings were made in both stereo and 5.1 surround sound, and filmed in 4k.

Stephen Greenbank

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