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Fernand de LA TOMBELLE (1854-1928)
Organ Works 2
Pastorale-Offertoire (1883) [6:10]
Pièces d’Orgue, (1890-1891) Op.33 [126:22]
Six Versets (1884) [11:49]
Toccata in A flat (1883) [5:55]
Stanislaw Maryjewski (organ)
rec. 2021, Cathedral of St John the Evangelist & St John the Baptist, Lublin, Poland
ACTE PRÉALABLE AP0517/18 [2 CDs: 150:35]

Despite his spectacular name, few organists will have heard of Antoine Louis Joseph Gueyrand Fernand de La Tombelle. Neither is his name familiar to those who enjoy operettas, incidental music (incorporating special lighting effects), dramatic cantatas, sacred choral works, chamber music, orchestral music, songs, or piano music, yet he was a prolific composer in all those areas. Various commercial recordings have appeared featuring his music and often including brief biographical sketches in their booklets, he warrants a brief, factual entry in Grove, and the enthusiast who provided an entry on him in Wikipedia was able to muster just three desultory paragraphs and assemble a vague and incomplete worklist. But his name remains little known beyond the groves of French academe where, at least, some scholars have taken a little more interest in him. One such is Jean-Christophe Branger who, in an article published by the French musicological society in 2011, provided this highly illuminating Abstract about La Tombelle: “A student of Théodore Dubois and Alexandre Guilmant, and a friend of Saint-Saëns who advised him, Fernand de La Tombelle had a dual career as composer and virtuoso pianist and organist. No revolutionary, yet strong-willed and fiercely independent by temperament, La Tombelle is an endearing and interesting figure in several respects…He left a large body of work in many genres, stylistically eclectic and atypical, which deserves to be re-evaluated not only because of its intrinsic merit, but also because it is richly illustrative of a particular form of social and artistic activity in fin-de-siècle France. In addition to his musical work, his archive includes photographs, drawings, paintings, writings - both theoretical and literary - and works relating in particular to astronomy and gastronomy. All of this ultimately constitutes the oeuvre of a gifted and remarkably cultivated artist, a Renaissance man, who also devoted much effort to the musical education of the lower classes, especially in his native Périgord, to which he retired after World War I, no doubt fleeing a society he no longer understood”.

Intent on re-evaluating part of La Tombelle’s largely forgotten output, Polish organist Stanislaw Maryjewski has already recorded a double-CD set of La Tombelle’s organ music (review) and now has recorded another, comprising the half-dozen volumes published as Pièces d’Orgue, Op.33, along with a small handful of early organ pieces. In his review of the first double-CD set, Göran Forsling waxed only moderately enthusiastic, while in my review of other organ music played by Maryjewski on the organ of Lublin Cathedral, (review) I, too, was not entirely carried away with enthusiasm. Things are very different here. I cannot recommend this release too strongly - for the music, the playing, the instrument, and the recording.

A name missing from any of the articles I have unearthed about La Tombelle and the organ (including Maryjewski’s own generous booklet notes with this and the previous release) is that of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. Yet, if it were not for Cavaillé-Coll and his symphonic organ, we would not have the great organ works of Franck or Widor, two composers whose music seems close to La Tombelle’s. It seems that, for La Tombelle, the organ was not so much a means to focus on colour and effect as a channel through which he could pour out many of his creative ideas. True, those ideas were somewhat uneven ranging from the weak to the monumentally strong occasionally going by way of something dangerously imitative, but if one thing links them all here, it is the excellent playing of Maryjewski and his superb handling of the richly-resourced 1935 Homan & Jezierski/2020 Krzysztof Deszczak instrument in Lublin Cathedral. French it most certainly is not, but it possess an array of rich and fascinating sounds all of which seem to fit this eclectic music like a glove.

The quality of the playing and of the organ (not to mention the recording) are probably most vividly demonstrated by the two pieces which constitute the third volume of the Pièces d’Orgue. A beautiful Andantino offers a delightful sampling of some of the organ’s more delicate and expressive solo stops as well as the wonderfully resonant pedal section, while the very substantial Variations on a Chorale takes a veritable Cook’s tour of the entire instrument, including a truly shattering full organ complete with thundering 32 foot pedal reed, and the fragrant warbling of what sounds very much like – and is described as much in Maryjewski’s booklet notes - a Vox Humana; the only issue here being that no stop of that name is listed in the specification given in the trilingual booklet. Highly virtuoso and extremely challenging as the Variations is, it is also one of the weaker works here, the choral (it seems to be an original idea by La Tombelle) has a strangely lumpy feel to it, while the concluding Fugue flounces around trying to get to grips with a level of contrapuntal dexterity which possibly eluded La Tombelle.

With a composer whose music is so eclectic it is easy to play “Guess the Influence” when hearing some of these pieces – a game Maryjewski has no compunction about playing in his own notes, referring, amongst other things, to the melody of the Andantino being “based on the theme from the 1st Chorale in E major by César Franck”. I’ll have to take his word for it, as I don’t identify it myself, but I do recognise nods towards Widor’s Toccata in La Tombelle’s Toccata in A flat, and while I would describe the relationship between La Tombelle’s Pastorale and the organ piece of the same name by Franck as more idiomatic than “stylised after” (as Maryjewski puts it), there’s no doubt that the Widor (composed in 1870) and the Franck (composed in 1862) were firmly in La Tombelle’s mind when he wrote these two pieces in 1890-1. Another obvious influence but, perhaps surprisingly not mentioned in the booklet, is that of La Tombelle’s teacher, Alexandre Guilmant, whose spirit thoroughly infuses the exuberant Marche Nuptiale. Beyond the influences and the weaknesses, there are many very fine pieces here, not least the intriguing 2nd Sonata which, in its three movement, reveals a wealth of invention and originality. All told, then, a release full of fascinating and intriguing discoveries none of which really deserves to languish any longer in obscurity.

Marc Rochester

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