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Exquisitely Nuanced

Steve Davislim sings
Vierne and Chausson -
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'I cannot think of higher praise.'

Turbulent Heart - Music of Vierne and Chausson. © 2009 Melba Recordings

The name Louis Vierne (1870-1937) didn't mean much to me either; apparently my misfortune. But then I'm not an organ aficionado; it turns out Monsieur Vierne (born in West-central France), was an influential fin de siècle organist/composer.

Moreover he was dogged with misfortune -- afflicted with congenital lifelong cataracts and in 1906 his leg was damaged in a Paris street accident jeopardizing his career as organist and destroying his health for months.

In 1908 his marriage was annulled and his mother died the same year. His son Jacques became ill simultaneously, and in 1911 his close friend Felix Guilmant (1837-1911) died. Then he was ousted from his post at the conservatory, where he should have succeeded Guilmant as organ professor. Another great organist-composer, Eugene Gigout, was chosen instead, and meanwhile others plotted to take away the prized post he held (1900-1937) at Notre Dame.

In 1916 his organist/composer brother Rene (also an organist and composer) was killed at the Battle of Verdun; his son Jacques died in the war at about the same time, and the same year Louis got sick with glaucoma, rendering him totally sightless. He had to take a four-year leave of absence to recuperate.

Accompanying Vierne's four 'symphonic poems for voice and orchestra' (first recordings) on this release is Chausson's masterpiece of nineteenth-century French melodie, Poème de l'amour et de la mer, recorded here for the first time by a tenor, the voice for which it was originally written.

Soloist Steve Davislim is among Australia's leading tenors and enjoys a growing reputation in major international opera houses and concert halls. He studied with the likes of Dame Joan Hammond, Luigi Alva and Ileana Cotrubas. Earlier this year I described his account of 'Winterreise' (Melba Recordings MR 30119) as a 'deeply-felt, superbly cogent performance'. [See 'Superbly Cogent -- A new recording of Schubert's Winterreise']

And here within the French repertoire he maintains a stellar vocal quality previously evident in Schubert lieder and several symphonic-lyric releases from the prestige Victoria (Australia) recording company.

Vierne's four little-known 'symphonic poems for voice and orchestra' are Psyché Op 33 (1914, with lyrics by Victor Hugo), Les Djinns, Op 35 (1912, with lyrics by Victor Hugo), Eros, Op 37 (1916, lyrics by Anna de Noailles, 1876-1933) and Ballade du désespéré Op 61 (lyrics by Henri Murger, 1822-1861, orchestrated by Maurice Duruflé in 1943).

His Opus 38 Spleens et détresses (lyrics by Verlaine) is available on Timpani Records with soprano Mireille Delunsch, and the Luxembourg Philharmonic (2006).

Alternatively there's a Vierne recital including Spleens et détresses featuring soprano Rachel Santesso with Roger Vignoles (piano), Andrew Reid (organ) and harpist Hugh Webb (Deux-Elles Records, 2005)

For this programme, the eighty-eight member Queensland Orchestra (chief conductor Johannes Fritzsch, born in Germany in 1960) is under the direction of guest conductor Guillaume Tourniaire.

Born in Provence, France, Tourniaire studied at the Geneva Conservatoire. In the closing years of the twentieth century he was director of Le Motet de Genève and later chief chorusmaster at Grand Théâtre de Genève. During 2001/02 he led the chorus at Teatro La Fenice in Venice.

His conducting début (in 1998) was at Grand Théâtre de Genève with Sergey Prokofiev's opera Betrothal in a Monastery and then at Opéra National de Paris with Stravinsky's ballet Le Sacre du Printemps.

From then on he was closely associated with L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, directing them in the world première of the complete original version of Prokofiev's music (which he himself reconstructed) to Eisenstein's movie Ivan the Terrible. Next came Mozart's incidental music for the play Thamos, König in Ägypten by Tobias Philippe Gebler, Mahler's cantata Das klagende Lied, Prokofiev's cantata Alexander Nevsky, the oratory Gilgamesh by Martinu, Dvorák's Requiem, Amarus and The Eternal Gospel by Janácek. He conducted OSR in productions of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia and Madame de ... (1969) by Jean Michel Damase (born 1928) at Grand Théâtre de Genève.

Tourniaire has been guest conductor for opera/concerts in Helsinki, Rome, Cosenza, Lisbon, Venice, Düsseldorf, Osnabrück, Bremen, Paris, Lecca, Catanzaro, Reggio, Lyon, et al.

The first dismal minute of Vierne's Les Djinns (on Melba) is hardly one to lift the spirits yet within two to three minutes the organist's orchestration is worthy of Berlioz, and while most commentators point to the influence of his teacher Franck, from 5'27" to 7'02" we might almost be in Humperdinck's Rhein-Sieg-Kreis, or deep within the Teutoburgerwald uplands.

Listen -- Vierne: Les Djinns
(track 1, 5:27-7:02) © 2009 Melba Recordings

Eros seems to awaken during the dark orchestral prologue. This brightens as it progresses to a brief violin solo at 4'58", leading to Davislim's entry (5'22") and de Noailles' lyric with its fervid Dionysian conclusion (from 8'37"). The Oz tenor has the power to take this in his stride and the nouse to keep from overstatement.

It is said of lyricist Henry Murger: 'he felt only the disillusionment without ever having experienced the illusion.' And Ballade du Désespéré (1931) seems to confirm the analysis. It speaks of a dialogue between the poet and a second character who wishes to enter his house. The stranger identifies himself as 'fame', 'love', 'wealth' and 'youth' but is steadfastly refused admittance.

Eventually the poet gives in, telling how tired of life he is. He follows the stranger (death) into the void. Here Vierne's unfathomably poignant orchestration is captured to perfection by the Queensland players and again Davislim catches the misanthropic mood with uncanny accuracy.

Next we backtrack to Psyché, Opus 33 to find Vierne/Hugo in less sombre mode; for here the poet questions a butterfly: 'what thing is it that God invests with most of His Word and man most of his flesh?' Davislim floats his entry with the utmost delicacy while later on the blend of voice and orchestra glow together like radiant embers -- an exquisitely nuanced performance.

Listen -- Vierne: Psyché
(track 4, 7:00-8:33) © 2009 Melba Recordings

Chausson's dramatic melodie Poème de l'amour et de la mer, Op 19 (1882-1892) has two lyrical sections based on the poems La fleur des eaux ('Flower of the waters') and La mort de l'amour ('The death of love') by the composer's friend Maurice Bouchor (1855-1929). Between these two is an orchestral interlude.

The Poème is currently available in four competitive mezzo recordings:

(i) Jessye Norman with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Armin Jordan in 2002 on Erato.

(ii) Susan Graham and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Yan Pascal Tortelier in 2005 on Warner Classics.

(iii & iv) Dame Janet Baker with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov on BBC Legends and by André Previn on EMI.

Other recordings include Elsa Maurus (Naxos), François Pollet (Virgin), Jean-François Lapointe (baritone), Louise-Andrée Baril (pf) (Analekta), Felicity Lott, soprano (Æon), Linda Finne (Chandos), François Le Roux, baritone (Decca), Victoria de los Angeles, Waltraud Meier (EMI) and Irma Kolassi (Decca / Hamburger Archiv für Gesangskunst).

It's supreme male interpreter, baritone Gerard Souzay (1918-2004) was 59 and somewhat past his prime when he recorded L'amour et de la mer, with the Orchestre de Chambre de la Radio Télévision Belge (conducted by Edgard Doneux), available on Testament Records. The filler -- Songs of Duparc with pianist Dalton Baldwin -- was from six years earlier.

But the younger, fresher, unsurpassed Souzay (1954) is heard in four Chausson songs on a disc titled Melodies Françaises pour Bariton including Fauré, Ravel, Chausson, and Duparc (Regis RRC 1236, AAD). The Chausson songs are Les Papillons (lyrics by Gautier), Le Temps des lilas (lyrics by Bouchor), Le Colibri (lyrics by de Lisle) and Le Charme (with lyrics by Silvestre). Souzay's accompanist is Jacqueline Bonneau.

At the 1893 Brussels première, Chausson himself played the piano for tenor Désiré Demest, and later that year the orchestral version was premièred by soprano Eléonore Blanc with the Orchestre de la Société Nationale de Musique (conducted by Gabriel Marie).

Listen -- Chausson: La fleur des eaux (Poème de l'amour et de la mer)
(track 5, 9:55-11:09) © 2009 Melba Recordings

Davislim's compelling performance combines the interpretative virtues of Canadian baritone, Jean-François Lapointe (with piano) and the legendary gallic sensitivities of Maine-et-Loire baritone Souzay (with orchestra). I cannot think of higher praise.

Chausson was killed at the age of forty four. The composer lost control of a bicycle on a downhill slope of his suburban Paris estate and ran straight into a brick wall. He died instantly.

Vierne died while giving his 1750th organ recital at Notre-Dame de Paris. After the main concert, he tackled two improvisations on submitted themes. But with no prior warning he lurched forward. When Vierne fell off the console bench his foot struck a low pedal. The composer passed away as a single 'E' echoed throughout the great church.

Copyright © 23 September 2009 Howard Smith,
Masterton, New Zealand









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