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The Bookending Of French Organ Music

First and Last (Franck/Vierne) Christopher Houlihan, organ. Church of the Ascension, New York Azica ACD-713256 Total Time: 70:07 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****

Music for the “king of instruments” can be an overwhelming listening experience and recordings of organs always give one’s audio equipment a great workout. Experiencing organ music tends to be relegated to those who are fortunate enough to still have musicians capable of playing them in weekly worship settings and apart from Baroque masterpieces, the repertoire hovers at the fringes of even the most avid listener. For many, the closest connection to the grand French organ music of the 19th- and early 20th-Century often comes through the organ symphony of Saint-Saens, or perhaps a Poulenc concerto. But there was a longstanding repertoire of music by composers asserting their abilities on some of the finest organs of France and exploring the many colors and sounds at their disposal.

Organist Christopher Houlihan, who teaches at Trinity College, embarked on a concert tour in 2012 that had him presenting the great Louis Vierne’s five organ symphonies in concerts across North America. He is one of the rare performers of the instrument noted for his engaging performances and intelligent voicing and interpretation. In this new release he returns to where he launched that series, the Church of the Ascension in New York. The instrument there is a Quorin organ, the only French-built organ in NY, making it quite capable of exploring the many colors in the music on this release. The music here presents two larger pieces that bookend the period of the greatest French masterworks for the instrument.

Cesar Franck’s (1822-1890) Grand Piece Symphonique, Op. 17 is the longest of the works from his Six Pieces for organ (1860-62). Composed in a single movement (though wisely indexed on this release to provide easy access to five segments) the work is an early microcosm of Franck’s style. A primary thematic idea, which is clearly outlined in the opening andantino, is used in the same cyclical fashion to unify the work. As the piece progresses, there is a sudden shift to a scherzo in the midst of a “slow movement” featuring a moment for some technical pyrotechnics and a massive production of sound. Here the clearly delineated three separate segments of the music suddenly merge together as pedals and manuals seem to take off on their own. The whole work has been slowly meditating up to that point and it makes this grand segment overwhelm the listener with a sense of sudden excitement and revelation. The finale moves us into an even more brilliant musical moment requiring impressive scale work in the pedals. A fugue also provides a nod to the Baroque masters (Bach and Couperin) who Franck was no doubt inspired by. The work was also dedicated to the French pianist Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888). Houlihan brings some wonderful colors from the instrument focusing on subtle shifts that also provide great clarity between the manuals and pedals and between voices. It is a quite masterful and engaging performance.

As a brief interlude, Houlihan turns to the Berceuse, Op. 31, no. 19 from Vierne’s (1870-1937) 24 Pieces en style libre, (1913-1914). This is perhaps one of his most popular works and Houlihan explores the organ’s instrumental shades a bit more here adding in the tremolo effect which adds to the ethereal quality of this piece.

Vierne, who was the organist at Notre Dame, wrote six organ symphonies and Houlihan has chosen his last, Symphony No. 6, Op. 59 (1930) to serve as the other bookend of this snapshot of French organ music. The piece will feel more like a suite with a five-movement structure which continues in that cyclical thematic line heard in the earlier Franck work. Its opening movement is rather shocking with its intense chromaticism that seems to stretch beyond the limits of tonality (Messiaen is not far off!) though strong thematic ideas are still present but all of that moves us to a grand final joyous harmonic cadence. An “Aria” provides contrast again with more reverential qualities that recall the earlier Berceuses’s ethereal qualities. A brilliant scherzo follows that shows off Vierne’s composition skills with a theme that is clearly presented and later will be inverted into a more bizarre statement with interesting rhythmic work as well. A long pedal undergirds the “Adagio” movement which makes the “Final” movement’s energy and pomp all the more glorious. It is perhaps another of the composer’s most appreciated pieces.

It is in the Vierne where Houlihan demonstrates his technical skill matched with careful colorful orchestrations here that add to the emotional quality of the music and add other nuances to the music that this particular instrument also enhances. He entices warm sounds from the instrument and even in the most intensely-dissonant sections one can clearly hear the different voicings.

Houlihan’s performance is enhanced by a well-captured sonic atmosphere by the Azica engineers that really provide a sense of sitting in just the right spot in the hall. The music tends to be imaged as mostly in the center of the sound picture with the edges adding the ambient qualities between the left and right channels. Packaging is cardboard with some overview of the two composer’s lives and music to help provide some context to the music. Pairing essentially works on the ends of the great spectrum of French organ music makes for a program that is both fascinating and immediately engaging. One is warmly invited into the space in the Franck and it prepares us for the gradual experimental edge that Vierne’s music was at as we come to a period informed by impressionism, modernism, and twelve-tone technique. Two masterpieces of the literature on one release makes one hope that perhaps we will get the other Vierne works in future. Until then, this is highly recommended for lovers of French music and great works for the grandest instrument of them all.


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