Brilliant recital of French organ music from Michael Stewart

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

Guilmant: Grand Chorus in G minor, Op 84; Widor: Symphonie Gothique, Op 70; Jehan Alain: Le jardin suspendu and Litanies from Three Pieces.

Michael Stewart at the organ

Church of St Mary of the Angels

Sunday 25 September, 2.30pm

I hadn’t adjusted my watch and as a result, missed the first item in the recital: Guilmant’s Grand choeur en forme de marche pour grand orgue, in G minor. Two of the three composers in the programme had been honoured as Radio New Zealand Concert’s Composers of the Week which had been introduced by Stewart himself (Guilmant died in 1911 and Alain was born in that year. Alain’s father had been a pupil of Guilmant’s). So this was a sad mishap, as my knowledge of Guilmant has been confined to several of the works played during the week plus a few pieces in the organ compilations in my CD collection.

However, I was in time fully to enjoy Widor’s Gothic Symphony (his No 9), one of his most successful works. It sometimes seems hard to fit the school of French organ composers into the pattern of other French composers, of opera, orchestral, chamber and choral music: Franck was really the only one to straddle both fields, though several well-known composers like Saint-Saëns and Fauré were fine organists.

Widor, born in 1844, was nine years younger that Saint-Saëns, two years younger than Massenet and a year older than Fauré. Though he lived till 1937, his composing life virtually ended around 1900. This symphony was composed about 1894, as Strauss was writing tone poems, Verdi’s Falstaff had just been produced, Mahler was working on his third symphony, Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune, Brahms’s last piano pieces and the two clarinet sonatas; Tchaikovsky had just written the Pathétique and had died.

Widor produced a large-scale work in this symphony (almost 30 minutes; actually, others would have called it a sonata, being for one instrument: Widor was obviously wanting to suggest the scale and variety of sounds available on a great organ). In the first movement, Moderato, over plunging, rotating pedal notes, the manuals mark out an insistent, almost hypnotic pattern, that could hardly be called a melody; yet it is arresting, slowly rising in pitch and seems to gather more and more stops into its dense and turbulent textures. I’m sure this was my first live hearing; it impressed me greatly, confirming my belief that the essence and force of most music is really grasped only in live performance. Though Stewart’s registrations, as offered by this fine French-style organ that Maxwell Fernie left to us, had great clarity and never overwhelmed through sheer volume, the music’s impact was stunning in a near literal sense.

The slow movement, Andante sostenuto, is one of Widor’s loveliest pieces and its calm, coloured by carefully selected flute stops, was an affecting contrast.

The third movement, a dancing fugue on the plainchant ‘Puer natus est nobis’, is far from the usual sombre character of organ music in a liturgical setting, with its dotted rhythms, though a splendid pedal appearance of the tune, in full diapason vestments, brings it to an fine declamatory end. The last movement, variations on the same tune, seems like a sequence of distinct moments musicaux, so individual are their various appearances, some in rather entertaining fugal form. Stewart held them together through his adroit handling of vivid, contrasted stops.

Jehan Alain, born in 1911, was 15 years older than his famous organist sister, Marie-Claire Alain; he was killed in the first year of World War II, in a heroic confrontation which the Germans themselves later honoured.

These two pieces proved a fine introduction to his work. The hanging garden was obviously an impressionistic piece, which would have been hard to ascribe to any particular orchestral composer who wrote music that carries that label. It was delicate and translucent, inviting the organist to explore an entrancing range of flute stops in high registers.

Litanies then came as a surprising, emphatic irruption, with its insistent theme of striking clarity and its comparably striking handling, evolving, investing with rhythmic energy. Its religious context comes as a surprise: Alain said that ‘in the obsessive rhythm of the work [was] released the irresistible gusting wind of prayer’ (perhaps a not very idiomatic translation of the French which I do not have to hand). All one could say was that Alain’s religion was of a powerful, muscular kind; and the music offered here through Stewart’s impressive medium would surely have caused the sadly small audience to go in search of more.



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