Rewarding concert of choral works by two French organ composers

The Bach Choir of Wellington conducted by Stephen Rowley

The Seven Last Words of Christ and Toccata No 3 in G by Théodore Dubois; Messe Solennelle in C sharp minor, Op 16 , Naïades from Pièces de fantaisie, Op 55 No 4 and Berceuse from 24 Pièces en style libre, Op 31 by Louis Vierne

Organists: Douglas Mews, Christopher Hainsworth and Emmanuel Godinez
Bryony Williams (soprano), Thomas Atkins (tenor), Kieran Rayner (baritone)

Church of St Mary of the Angels

Sunday 17 April, 7pm

Two days after Richard Apperley had played Haydn’s account of the Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross on St Paul’s Cathedral organ, an choral version of the story by Théodore Dubois was sung in St Mary of the Angels. If Haydn’s version saw the New Testament story as offering hope and spiritual renewal for mankind, Dubois’s account of Les sept paroles du Christ, only 70 years later, seemed to remove it from the divine world to a bourgeois world where spiritual ideas and emotions are filtered through a style of music more reminiscent of the theatre and drawing room.

That is not to say that in the eight movements (an Introduction and the seven verses that were compiled in early Christian times from various Gospel sources), there were not episodes in which the composer captured the sense and the emotions of the words and the meaning behind them. ‘Mulier (woman or mother), ecce filius tuus’, is the equivalent of the medieval poem Stabat Mater, set by many composers, and part of which used as the following gloss, there was, through baritone, tenor and soprano soloists, an affecting representation of grief in descending phrases. It was perhaps a pity that the two male singers had voices that were rather similar in timbre so that it was often only when singing at the extremes of their registers that I was absolutely certain who was singing.

All three voices, of current students or recent graduates of the New Zealand School of Music, were bright, splendidly produced and fitted the roles they depicted admirably.

And in the fourth Word, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’, perhaps the most challenging theologically, the feeling may not have been utterly despairing and uncomprehending, but its intensity created a small tour de force. It so happened I heard Stainer’s setting of these words in his Crucifixion on RNZ Concert on Wednesday morning (as I was finishing this review). And though I find the work pretty glutinous and religiose, Stainer captured the words with simple honesty.

The entire concert was performed from the choir gallery which proved most congenial in terms of sound projection, detail and balance. Solo voices seemed less subject to any undue reverberation, and the choir’s first entry after short verses from tenor and baritone, was surprisingly powerful; I suspect that both the supportive acoustic and the entire ambience stimulated the Bach Choir to perform at a level of distinction that it has been regaining steadily under the leadership of Stephen Rowley in the past couple of years.

Dubois’s work consists of the ‘Words’, sung generally by one of the soloists, followed by an enlargement of the verse with appropriate liturgical texts, all in Latin and sung by the chorus and/or the soloists. The organ, in Christopher Hainsworth’s hands, added very importantly to the interest and liveliness of the whole work.

The first half of the concert was in Hainsworth’s hands for, as President of the Dubois Society, he had grasped an appropriate opportunity to advocate for him. The society is dedicated to the revival of attention to this neglected composer, as much in France as other countries. He had chosen his exhibit for the court very well. It is interesting to recall that Dubois had been director of the Paris Conservatoire during the time that Ravel was being repeatedly failed for the Prix de Rome, though he actually resigned just before Ravel’s last (unsuccessful) attempt.

He played Dubois’s most familiar organ piece, his Toccata in G, having warned us not to imagine that Dubois had merely imitated Widor: Dubois’s toccata came first. It was a splendid display, employing the organ’s brilliant capacities with a sure instinct for effective registrations.

After the interval there were another two organ solos – by the concert’s ‘other’ composer, Louis Vierne. Thirty years younger than Dubois, Vierne’s music is far removed from the theatre-dominated music of his predecessor: impressionism and fastidiousness are the hallmarks. Douglas Mews played the much anthologized Naïades, aqueous and luminous; and then the Berceuse from Op 31 was played by Emmanuel Godinez, still at secondary school – St Patrick’s College, who was last year’s Maxwell Fernie Trust scholar. His performance of this quiet piece was of course no spectacle, but sensitive and poetic.

Vierne’s Messe Solennelle, written around 1900, was accompanied at the organ by Douglas Mews; it does not include the ‘Credo’. Again, the organ’s part was distinctive and refined, but not without dramatic moments, in which some of the more colourful, occasionally ‘peasant’ registrations, lent interest to a work whose refinement and subtlety might otherwise have deprived it of variety and drama. The choir’s performance was again remarkably confident and robust, though when necessary, as in the ‘Benedictus’ and in the undemonstrative ‘Agnus Dei’, the singing was of a delicacy and calm that brought the concert to a moving conclusion.

If Dubois’s life was fairly untroubled, Vierne’s was a tale of loss and misfortune. He was born near blind; he was deeply distressed by a divorce from his wife; his brother and son were killed in the First World War; he injured a leg in a street accident which took a long time to mend, and he had to relearn his pedal technique at the organ. And though he held the presitigous post of organist at Notre Dame Cathedral, the organ was in a state of serious disrepair through most of his time. And the story of his death during his 1750th recital in the cathedral rests among the strange semi-myths of music.

His recital was to end with two improvisations on submitted themes; he read the first theme in Braille, then selected the stops he would use; he suddenly pitched forward, and fell off the bench as his foot hit the low E pedal of the organ. He lost consciousness as the single note echoed throughout the church, and the story goes that the congregation only realised something was wrong as the note continued to sound. The latter is apocryphal however as his friend Maurice Duruflé was beside him at the time. But he had thus fulfilled his oft-stated lifelong dream – to die at the console of the great organ of Notre-Dame.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *