Reviews

GMCD 7215 – Masterworks by Organ & Orchestra by Guilmant, Boëlmann

Tomas Bächli – Piano, Petra Ronner – Piano

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Organists’ Review – February 2002

This is one of a series of discs delving into the surprisingly rich repertoire for organ and orchestra. Fétis (a Belgian musicologist and organist) wrote a very engaging Fantaisie, with traces of a Mendelssohnian style fused with Franck, and Boëllmann’s essay shows a control of larger-scale form not encountered in his organ solo miniatures. The Guilmant pieces are more variable, ranging from the accessible Symphonie I and the well-wrought Stabat Mater, to some less than inspired smaller works. They are all, however, performed with verve and style (to try to persuade you of their merit!). In fact, the strong but supple playing of the Ingolstadt Philharmonie is very persuasive throughout. I felt that the organ could have been recorded a little closer (the tuttis in particular sound thin, although  the choice of a 1977 Klais does not help in this respect), but the orchestral sound is thrilling! Warmly recommended.
Daniel Moult

Classical Music on the Web June

Alexandre GuilmantAlexandre Guilmant, who, with Vincent d’Indy, was one of the founders of the Schola Cantorum, was also a major exponent of the French organ revival in the mid-19th Century. As the works recorded in this intelligently planned programme show, he was also a very distinguished composer.

The Allegro Op. 81 is a brilliant Toccata for organ and orchestra whereas the Marche Fantaisie sur deux Chants d’Eglise Op. 44 is somewhat lighter in mood. The expressive mood is rather restrained for the first third of the piece. Then, a mighty crescendo leads to a powerful peroration when both themes combine to great effect. By contrast, the beautiful Meditation sur le “Stabat Mater” Op. 63 unfolds peacefully throughout. This is a little gem. Final alla Schumann sur un Noel languedocien is either a light-hearted homage to the German composer or an affectionate pastiche. In any case it is a delightful short work with a good deal of humour, something you would not readily associate with music for organ and orchestra. The Symphony No. 1 in D minor Op. 42 is undoubtedly a major work. This, a reworking of Guilmant’s Organ Sonata Op.42, was first performed in 1878. The First Symphony is in three movements: the Introduction et Allegro opens with a vigorous, declamatory passage leading into the Allegro section based on two main subjects that make for much of the symphonic argument. (The second subject is redolent of Franck.) The beautiful Pastorale is quite simply one of Guilmant’s most ravishing inventions. No wonder that this exquisite movement was encored at the first performance. The conclusion is another brilliant, lively Toccata. For anecdote’s sake, it may seem curious that Guilmant dedicated his First Symphony to Leopold II, king of Belgium, whose rather unenthusiastic attitude to music (“expensive noise”) is well-known. However Guilmant’s First Symphony unquestionably ranks with the finest works ever written for organ and orchestra. A real masterpiece.

Leon Boëllmann Leon Boëllmann is generally best-known for his Suite Gothique for organ and may also be remembered for his beautiful Variations Symphoniques for cello and orchestra which Paul Tortelier recorded years ago. His lovingly crafted Fantaisie Dialoguée Op.63 of 1896 is a quite likeable piece – well worth hearing. It opens with a powerful introduction leading into a more flowing theme. The music then develops into a playful Scherzo. A restatement of the main theme leads to a rousing apotheosis – quite impressive in its short length.

Though he played a considerable role in the then young Belgian musical life (he became the first head of the Brussels Conservatoire), Fétis may not have been a great composer, though a quite competent one. His Fantaisie Symphonique of 1866 was written to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Royal Academy of Science in Brussels and its first performance also coincided with the inauguration of the new organ of the concert hall of the Brussels Conservatoire. Fétis was never one to shy from writing the big celebratory piece and the orchestra at the time of the first performance of the Fantaisie Symphonique included 90 strings! Fétis’s music has been much influenced by German composers, including Beethoven and Mendelssohn, and this particular piece is a good example of his well-crafted, though at times eclectic music: the first movement, adhering roughly to the symphonic allegro pattern, is followed by a song-like Andante con Variazioni. The last movement is a grand finale with sonorous hunting horns and thunderous organ chords.

The present release is most welcome. All this music is rarely heard, if at all, in concerts. The Guilmant works and the piece by Boëllmann are very fine and deserve to be better known, while Fétis’s work may be more of historical than musical interest but nevertheless well worth the occasional hearing. All of the performances are strong: Franz Hauk is superbly supported by the Ingolstadt Philharmonic conducted by Olaf Koch. Recording works for organ and orchestra may often be rather tricky. However the recording team here worked wonders in coping with the reverberant nave of Ingolstadt Munster.

Full marks to all concerned. Really well worth investigating.
Hubert


MUSIC TEACHERS UK – JUNE 2001

Looking at concert programmes throughout the world one would imagine that, due to the numerous repetitions of the Poulenc organ concerto, solo works for organ and orchestra are pretty thin on the ground. This is definitely not the case, and Guild’s latest release of French masterworks for organ and orchestra certainly proves this with the seven works represented on this disc.

All of the pieces date from the nineteenth-century French symphonic period of organ music. Inspired by the instruments of Cavaillé-Coll and the exemplary playing and compositions of Franck and Widor, a world-renowned school of organ playing was created with pupils such as Vierne, Guilmant, Dubois, Dupré and many others. Cavaillé-Coll’s instruments made use of an extended pedal range, orchestrally voiced stops, overblown flutes, string voices and heavy pressure reeds. They are famed for their rich warm and generally enormous sound, all of which qualities appear to be lacking in the organ of Ingolstadt Münster, which is a very large neo-Baroque instrument built in 1977 by the German firm of Klais. Ingolstadt, therefore, does not have the gravitas, warmth, or, when required, the sheer violence of a Cavaillé-Coll, a rather serious flaw when undertaking a recording of French organ works, especially if they are to compete with orchestra. The Ingolstadt edifice must be a recording engineer’s worst nightmare, the acoustic of several seconds and the fact that the organ is several stories higher than the orchestra means that both parties have been recorded very closely – something which is never very flattering. This only serves to create a rather false and thin orchestral sound and to highlight the inconsistencies in the violins. The organ too sounds extremely feeble: nowhere on the whole disc is the warm sea of sound we expect from a Cavaillé-Coll, and the pedal has a real lack of power, which is sorely missed at the tutti pedal solo of Guilmant’s Symphony. The bright Baroque mixtures are completely out of place in this repertoire and are obviously used in a vain attempt at making the organ sound powerful. The orchestra is lost in such a vast space because these works were originally intended for the concert hall.

Recordings of this repertoire are few, but in recent years Chandos has also released a recording of Guilmant’s Symphony No.1 with the BBC Philharmonic and Ian Tracey at Liverpool Cathedral. This recording also suffers due to the vast building: however it has the advantage of having an instrument that is more than capable of competing with a Cavaillé-Coll.

The actual performances are generally very adequate apart from some unsettling violin intonation, which really lowers the standard of this release considerably. On the plus side however, the pieces are extremely enjoyable; they aren’t all masterworks but will appeal to any lover of music by nineteenth-century French organ composers. But be warned – if you are used to the fiery reeds and breathy flutes of Saint-Sulpice then this proves to be something of a disappointment.
Jonathan Scottonathan Scott


Classical Music on the web Wednesday May 16 2001

The Allegro, Op81 (1894) begins in stately fugato style which develops into a busily, bright and well-crafted concerto movement. The closing passage carries similarities of the Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony written eight years earlier.

The Marche Fantaisie (1875) is based on two lightly contrasting subjects on a pleasant Baroque-style theme which weaves graciously throughout. Both subjects are initially introduced separately and in great detail and later confront each other in dialogue form. A final fugato builds to a crescendo of orchestra and two rippling harps – sadly the orchestration (or engineering) does not allow a worthwhile contribution by the harps until the closing bars.

The Méditation, Op63 (1884) is a ponderous piece with meandering strings which link elements of Gregorian Chorale to the classicistic tonal language. The introductory recitative oboe passages are reminiscent of opera influences in that the style has perhaps a Verdian leaning.

The Final alla Schumann sur un Noël Languedocieu, Op83 (1895) is a lively rhapsody based on two French carols. The piece is powerful and appealing.

His Symphony No.1 pour Orgue et Orchestre, Op42 (1878) is better known since recordings have been available in Britain since 1988 and in 1993 the BBCPO included the symphony in a new CD. The work started life as one of Guilmant’s organ sonatas. It is likely that the orchestral version was expressly written for the Paris World Exhibition of 1878. Written in three movements (Allegro, Pastorale, and Allegro assai) in the tradition of Beethoven and Berlioz it contains stretching lyrical parts which form an effective contrast to the main emotional idea of the first movement. The highly appealing second movement (encored at its première) carries a light and calm melody in which a few choral motifs flow. The third movement is shaped by a quick toccata motion, again contrasted by a chorale-like subject. The powerful closing section is something worthy of Mahler, perhaps.

Guilmant’s compositions are traditionally scored with lyrical melodies which are melodiously light and refreshingly delicate. He is a composer with a good command of orchestral scoring and dynamics, particularly in the strings sections yet in these tracks under-uses his woodwind.

BOËLLMANN was born only 25 years after Guilmant yet we can tell from the composition on this CD that he has a more modern approach to his writing. Like Guilmant, Boëllmann occupied a position as organist of another Paris church. He finished his studies with a number of first prizes for his skills in composition. He was held in high esteem by Parisians as a pianist and organist and described as a neo-classicist by his contemporaries who favourably received his forty or so compositions.

His Fantaisie Dialoguée pour Orgue et Orchestre, Op35 (1896) is a powerful piece and has a ring of Wagner about it. It opens with a clear well rhythmed subject which is developed and then turns into a kind of delicate scherzo. This work also contains lyrical melodies and an influence from the opera and ballet. Contrasts are provided which gradually intensify to lead to a finale climax.

FÉTIS is the earliest of our composers and studied at the Paris Conservatoire before becoming organist at Douai in 1813. Fétis is more widely known for the set of music textbooks he published rather than his achievements as a first-class composer. This is a pity because he deserves to be more widely heard and maybe the series of Guild CDs will provide it. His musical works are frothy, catchy and imaginatively written: to me they prove that Fétis is a virtuoso master of composition. Stylistically, Fétis expands on the forms used by Mozart and Beethoven, coupled with the romanticism of Mendelssohn.

The Fantaisie-Symphonique pour Orgue et Orchestre (1866) is recorded as being among his masterpieces; and a masterpiece it is, too. His aim was a kind of symphony in which two sounding bodies were supposed to fight a battle between two large orchestras. In the brilliant opening movement, organ and orchestra are dramatically juxtaposed. A frothy song-like andante with variations rising to brilliant figures follows an intonation in the wind section. A middle recitative-style passage leads to a virtuoso finale with hunting motifs provided by horns and lovely dialogues provided between woodwind and organ. The finale is reminiscent of opera tradition.

This disc of lesser known French and Belgium composers is very appealing and highly recommended. Despite the background of these composers they never score the organ for solo passages. The instrument is always skilfully scored to add another dimension of colour and is never obtrusive. The  Ingolstadt Philharmonic orchestra plays confidently and under Olaf Koch’s direction the forces of organ and orchestra are pleasantly blended. The Notes make interesting reading and give ample historical detail. Full specifications for both organ and engineering are provided.

The Guild CD should be nominated for Gramophone’s Technical Award for its clarity of recording. The orchestral sections are well focused and the location is ideally sonorous. The reverberation time on the final chords is truly amazing and enhances orchestral timbre superbly.
Raymond Walker