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Louis VIERNE (1870-1937)
Complete Piano Works Volume 1
Deux pièces, op. 7 (1893-95) [4:39]
Suite bourguignonne, op. 17 (1899) [19:38]
Trois nocturnes, op. 34 (1915–16) [19:48]
Poème des cloches funèbres, op. 39 (1916) [4:48]
Silhouettes d’enfants, op. 43 (1918) [10:50]
Sergio Monteiro (piano)
rec. 2-6 December 2020, Small Rehearsal Hall, Wanda Bass School of Music, Oklahoma City University, USA
NAXOS 8.574296 [59:59]

Most listeners will be aware of French composer Louis Vierne’s achievements organ music. His Six Symphonies for solo organ, the Pièces de fantaisie and the Pièces en style libre make a major contribution to the repertoire for the King of Instruments. Yet, beside this, Vierne wrote much music for other genres; there is an orchestral symphony, a piano concerto, chamber music, many songs and, what concerns us here, a respectable catalogue of piano works. The latter are hardly well known. I understand that Naxos have planned to issue the “complete piano works” in two volumes.

The overall impact of Volume 1 is wide-ranging. The musical style stretches from the Romantic character piece to post-Impressionism. The compositions on this album are placed in chronological order.

The Deux Pieces, op.7 were written in 1893-95, and nod to Felix Mendelssohn. The restrained and stylish Impression d’Automne is followed by an energetic Intermezzo. They present lovely melodies supported by involved chromatic harmonies.

The Suite bourguignonne, op. 17 (1899) is a musical exploration of Burgundy. The seven movements present a mood of exuberance and idealistic contentment. This is hardly surprising, as Louis Vierne had recently married his first wife, Berthe Arlette Taskin. Yet, it is not all joie de vivre; after an exuberant Aubade (Dawn Song), there is a thoughtful Idylle. Fun and games return with the skittish Divertissement. The composer moves away from his matrimonial happiness with a reflection on some unspecified Légende bourguignonne. Religious matters are explored in the À l'angelus du soir when the church bell tolls in encouragement for prayer. This is the most pensive movement of the Suite. Fun and games once again with a lively Danse rustique. Finally. romance is heard again in Clair de lune which brings the Suite to a satisfying close. This is a beautiful evocation of moonlight, with its poetically charged harmonies and dreamy melody.

The Trois Nocturnes, op. 34 are the most impressive pieces on this disc. They were written during the early years of the Great War, just before and after Vierne went to Switzerland for an extended period of treatment for his glaucoma. These Nocturnes do not seem to reflect the magic of night-time, but more often its terrors. The first is titled La Nuit avait envahi la nef de la cathédrale… (The Night had entered the Nave of the Cathedral) is a case in point. This is no sentimental religious meditation, but a disturbed dream. The second Nocturne, Au splendide mois de mai lorsque les bourgeons rompaient l’écorce… (In the beautiful month of May when the buds broke through the bark) is less troubled. This quotation from Heinrich Heine allows Vierne to create a Romantic image of an early summer’s evening. Complex harmonies support lyrical melodies. Despite the positive image created by the title, there is a sense here of potential loss. It may be the last time that this joy of nature was seen. The final nocturne La Lumière rayonnait des astres de la nuit, le rossignol chantait… (The Light shone from the stars of the night, the nightingale sang) is more positive. The composer makes a successful attempt at capturing the bird’s enchanting song. This is not done with the same exactitude and imagination as Messiaen would achieve: Vierne has created an impression, rather than an exact transcription. The liner notes are correct in pointing out that the optimism of this final Nocturne is a long way from the battlefields of France (and other theatres of war). The entire sequence is a masterpiece. It is one of my discoveries of 2021. It ought to be in the repertoire of all pianists who promote French music.

The ordeal of the Great War is never far away from the pages of Poèmes des cloches funèbres, op. 39. The companion piece, Cloches et le cauchemar is lost. Le Glas (The Death Knell) was completed on Christmas Day, 1916. The melancholy sound of the bells is strengthened by a sombre impressionism. There are definite echoes of Debussy here.

The final work on this disc is the five Silhouettes d’enfants, op. 43. These were composed in 1918, shortly after Vierne’s eldest son committed suicide. Yet this is not a tribute to his child; each piece is dedicated to one of the Comtesse du Boisrouvray’s children. Vierne stayed with the family when he was on a long holiday in the Lausanne. Varying in difficulty, these numbers are typically straightforward in design and effect. The liner notes are correct in suggesting that Vierne was unable to create “an idealised portrait of childhood.” This is not the French equivalent of Hubert Parry’s celebration of childhood, in his Shulbrede Tunes, yet, Vierne’s portraits are typically fun, sometimes a touch wistful, and always maintain the listener’s interest and sympathy.

The playing by Sergio Monteiro captures the magic of this music. He can seize Vierne’s “colourful, imaginative and inspiring” approach to the piano. The recording is superb. The liner notes by Peter Siepmann are excellent; they give a brief overview of the composer’s life and achievement, detailed notes about each piece, and successfully manages to fit them into Vierne’s overall achievement. Bearing in mind that there are few other sources of information about this music, they make essential reading.

There are other recordings of Louis Vierne’s “Complete” piano music on CD. The Intégrale de l’Œuvre pour piano – Vol.1 and 2, are played by Georges Delvallée. They were issued in 1993/4 by the Arion Label (ARN 68270 and ARN 68312). In 1994, Timpani Records (2C2023) released The Complete Piano Works played by Olivier Gardon. I have not heard these albums. I understand that they are now only available as streaming. There are no downloadable booklets.

I enjoyed this exploration of Louis Vierne’s piano oeuvre. To whom will this disc appeal? I guess that listeners who appreciate the great tradition of French piano music, from Alkan to Messiaen. It fills a gap that has been ignored by most recitalists and I look forward to the second volume soon.

John France 

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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