First of a fine series of French symphonic organ works, from Douglas Mews

L’Orgue symphonique: French organ music in the symphonic tradition

César Franck: Pièce symphonique, Lento and Sortie from ‘L’organiste’; Chorale No 2 in B minor; Pastorale from ‘Six pièces’; Cantabile and Pièce héroique from ‘Trois pièces’

Douglas Mews at the organ of the
Church of Saint Mary of the Angels

Sunday 3 July, 2.30pm

In a celebration of the legacy of the church’s great organist Maxwell Fernie, Saint Mary’s is presenting three recitals by three organists of French symphonic organ music. This was the first, devoted to the founder of a tradition that set a new path for organ music which continues to
the present day.

It arose through the arrival of a composer whose instincts led him away from the emphasis on opera in the France of the early 19th century, to the rediscovery of the choral music of the Renaissance and Bach and of the German symphonic tradition.

The other contributor to the blossoming of organ music and its performance from around 1850 was the advent of the great organ builder Cavaillé-Coll: Franck was appointed principal organist at the Marais church of Saint-Jean-Saint-François in 1853 where Cavaillé-Coll’s new organ astonished and delighted him. That church is now the Cathédrale-Sainte-Croix-des-Armeniens, and its website records that it houses two organs by Cavaillé-Coll, one of them built in 1844 – certainly the one that Franck played. I have heard chamber music and vocal concerts there but have not heard the organ. 

The programme notes say that he earlier encountered a Cavaillé-Coll organ in the church of Notre Dame de Lorette; that was certainly his first organist post, but it is not clear that the church had a Cavaillé-Coll organ; that church’s website makes no mention of one. In 1858 he became principal organist at the new church of Sainte-Clotilde with its magnificent Cavaillé-Coll instrument and remained there the rest of his life. 

The recital began with three early pieces from a large collection, L’organiste. Pièce symphonique, was an extrovert piece in very four-square military tempo in its outer parts  in which Mews used
suitably brash stops, contrasted with a gentle middle section. The Lento movement and the Sortie were offered no more than hints of the great organ works that were to follow, though Mews’s imaginative registrations made the most of them.

The second of the three Chorales written in his last year was the most important work of the recital. The chorales do not enjoy the strong melodic character of some of his music, and their success depends greatly on the colours that the organist can create from the combinations of stops that he can contrive; Mews familiarity with Maxwell Fernie’s in-some-ways idiosyncratic masterpiece allowed him to move from one phase to the next, from the boisterous to the pastoral to the heroic, with dynamics and colourings that were always immaculate.

The Pastorale of almost 30 years earlier is one of the most familiar of his works – I think my LP including a performance by Jeanne Demessieux was one of the first organ discs I bought aged about 20: I am chastened by Mews’s reference to its being in an ‘easy-listening’ style. Nevertheless, it wears well, especially in such an affectionate, subtle performance.

The ‘Three Pieces’ were written for the inauguration in 1878 of the Cavaillé-Coll organ at the Trocadero (across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, built ten years later). The Cantabile enjoys a vivid melody on loud reed stops that, like most of Franck’s tunes, ranges over a quite narrow compass. The last item was the Pièce héroique, played with splendid vitality and timbale colour, the raucous pedal stops perhaps a little indiscreet but perhaps intended mocking and undoubtedly arresting. 

As a totally inappropriate aside, it stuck me as odd that in Mews’s well-recorded, 2010  CD in Priory Record’s Great Australasian Organs series, he included no French music in a programme that in itself I find less than interesting, and which to me hardly displays the Wellington Town Hall Organ in the sort of important repertoire that does either player or organ proper justice.

One thought on “First of a fine series of French symphonic organ works, from Douglas Mews

  1. Douglas Mews says:

    Hi Lindis,
    Priory Records wanted rarely-recorded repertoire, so no Bach, Franck, Vierne, Mendelssohn, Widor etc etc…
    The 1906 Norman and Beard really doesn’t do French repertoire very well, mainly because English reeds are so much ‘fatter’ than French reeds, so I chose repertoire that DID suit the organ best. Sorry you were disappointed!

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