Saturday, September 1, 2007

Three Recordings of Maurice Duruflé's Organ Works

Maurice Durufle / Vincent Warnier: L'Oeuvre d'orgue
Vincent Warnier, organ (1863 / 1873, Cavaillé-Coll, St. Etienne-du-mont, Paris)
Intrada INTRA027

Duruflé: L'Oeuvre integrale pour orgue
Stefan Schmidt, organ (2001, Karl Gockel, St. Peter's, Dusseldorf)
Aeolus AE-10211

Durufle: Organ Music (complete)
Henry Fairs, organ (1884, Cavaillé-Coll at the Notre-Dame d'Auteuil, Paris)
Naxos 8.557924

  • Scherzo, Op. 2
  • Prelude, Adagio et Choral varié sur le theme du "Veni Creator," Op. 4
  • Suite pour orgue, Op. 5
  • Prelude et fugue sur le nom d'Alain, Op. 7
  • Fugue sur le carillon des heures de la Cathedral de Soissons, Op. 12
  • Prelude sur l'introit de l'Epiphanie, Op. 13
  • Chant Donne--Hommage a Jean Gallon (Fairs, Schmidt)
  • Meditation, Op. posth. (Fairs)


Duruflé has been on my short list of favorite composers now for nearly 20 years. I remember getting a couple cassette tapes from a friend in the mid-80s and realized that here finally was the tonal world of Debussy and Ravel translated to my favorite instrument (albeit with a gregorian chant underpinning which the other two lacked). I didn't realize at that time that these two cassettes constituted the entirety of Duruflé's published music: one tape for choral works (the Op. 9 Requiem, the Op. 10 Motets, and the Op. 11 Messe Cum Jubilo) and another for organ works. Duruflé's own explanation for his scant output is that his years of teaching composition so heightened his critical faculties that he simply wasn't happy with anything he wrote. The couple of unpublished works which have come forth since his death in 1986 leave one pining for an unexpected discovery of other unknown things, the proverbial lost trunk of sketches. I guess we should be thankful that we have as much as we do. Given the extremely limited scope of his work, then, I feel no compunction about acquiring every recording of his complete organ works I can get my hands on.

It's been a good couple of weeks on this front. After meeting him during our visit to Paris this summer, I was able to find Vincent Warnier's survey on iTunes (I saw several copies of the CD in Paris, but didn't know who the artist was at the time; the physical CD is hard to find back stateside). Warnier shares the titular post at Duruflé's own church in Paris, St. Etienne-du-mont, with organist Thierry Escaich (who has his own Duruflé survey out), and this particular CD was recorded on Duruflé's own instrument at St. Etienne-du-mont. This organ was worked on, as were all of Paris's greatest instruments, by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll; in this case, in 1863 and again in 1873. As one would expect, the organ has been gone thru by several other builders in the 130 years since. How much Cavaillé-Coll remains is unknown to me. But it makes all the right noises, and has that slightly jagged sound--almost as though it's not quite in tune--an aggressive upperwork that makes me think I hear Cavaillé-Coll's work.

Warnier acquits himself well technically, and the performances are solid throughout, though not always the most communicative examples of this repertoire I've encountered. His Op. 13 Prelude sur l'introit de l'Epiphanie in particular passes in rather perfunctory fashion, but the Op. 12 Fugue sur le carillon des heures de la Cathedral de Soissons (with which the Prelude is sometimes paired) comes off better. I like his Op. 7 Prelude and Fugue sur le nom d'Alain, especially the stately pacing of the great fugue. The sound of the iTunes AAC files leaves one wishing for the original CD, or at least an Apple Lossless version, as the compression squashes the sound just a bit. Still, it's a good recording and has the imprimatur of having come from Duruflé's successor.

Stefan Schmidt is the Cantor of the Church of St. Peter in Dusseldorf, where his recording was made. The instrument is a newer offering from a builder with whom I am unfamiliar, one Karl Gockel from near Heidelberg. It's always an interesting proposition to me to hear this very French music played on instruments not specifically tailored to it. Whereas Bach plays well on anything from organ to pan pipes to steel drum, the music of Duruflé is indelibly linked to this very Parisian, Cavaillé-Coll sound. The organ is brilliantly recorded, the live reverberation of the room blending the aggressive tutti into a swirling kaleidoscope of full-range sound. The organ, though not especially large, has a snarling, assertive sound at full throttle which is a bit reminiscent of Cavaillé-Coll's own sound. Schmidt understands his instrument and acoustic, and the playing is paced to make best use of both. Recommended.

My favorite of these three, though is the Naxos release by Englishman Henry Fairs. Fairs is University Organist at the University of Birmingham and an organ tutor at the Birmingham Conservatoire, and another specialist in this repertoire. He has found a little-known (to me, anyway) Cavaillé-Coll in Paris to speak his piece. I don't rate the sound of the instrument or the recording quite as high as the Sefan Schmidt CD, but it's very good just the same, and the performances are spot-on. The instrument is quite small, and so the tutti in the gnashing chromatic climax of the Prelude of the Op. 5 Suite lacks the teeth one likes to see here. But the individual solo stops are lovely, and Fairs makes the most of what he has available. He also includes the delightful Hommage a Jean Gallon and the even rarer Meditation, both published posthumously. (This latter piece is an arrangement of the Agnus Dei from the Op. 11 Cum Jubilo mass, and I've only elsewhere seen it on a BIS release by Hans Fagius.) Fair's Hommage a Jean Gallon is especially haunting, a simple two minute piece that sets deep hooks; I must have listened to it 25 times since getting this recording. It's simply but unapologetically registered, and puts the small Cavaillé-Coll in the most delicious light.

(An aside: you gotta love Naxos. This is their second full survey of the organ music of Duruflé, the first coming over a decade ago at the hands of Eric Lebrun at yet another lesser-known Cavaillé-Coll in Paris. What began as a budget label has become classical music's greatest powerhouse, issuing consistently excellent performances and recordings of both well known and lesser known repertoire while the big labels are floundering. Where I originally looked to them to introduce me inexpensively to new repertoire, I now tend to favor them for consistent quality. That you get to save 25 or 50% is icing on the cake.)

These are all three worthy additions to the catalog, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend any of the three. My favorite single CD of this music remains Todd Wilson's 1986 recording on the Delos label, a recording of a medium-sized Schudi organ in Dallas. The organ is exactly right for the repertoire, the sonic quality of the recording is unbeatable, and the performances are simply perfect. The recording is currently unavailable new, but can be found on Amazon.


Chris Born said...

You're absolutely correct! I am in the same boat as you - I scour the internet and record stores for anything Durufle. I am kind of a nerd when it comes to that! I have an old 33 that is in excellent condition of Durufle and his wife recording his own stuff - but to find Henry Fairs' work on iTunes made my day. Just like you, I had to listen to the Meditation over and over again after I purchased and downloaded it. I also am a huge fan of Todd Wilson's Delos CD. I love how it warns you not to leave your amp too loud for fear of blowing your speakers on the liner notes. Durufle MUST be enjoyed with a subwoofer.

I studied organ at Valparaiso and Dr. Martin Jean was our Kantorei director. My first exposure to Durufle was when Dr. Jean was on tour with the same Kantorei while I was a freshman in High School, 15 years ago...he played Prelude and Fugue sur le Nomme ALAIN, and I just couldn't wrap my 13 year old brain around it. When I got to college, it became my dearest favorite piece.

What do you think of Langlais?

Anonymous said...


how about this much acclaimed recording:

Do you know it? How would you rate it compared with the Naxos recording?

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your note and the news of an additional Naxos recording of the Duruflé pieces. Without a doubt, Duruflé is my favorite composer for choral and organ! I wish there was a recording of everything he wrote in one package. Maybe this will happen soon.

Yes, you're right about Todd's recording. Is it the first? It's still my favorite; however, I really like Olivier Latry's recording, but those out-of-tune stops just don't do well with my ears! But, it's oh-so-French! ha ha

wunelle said...

I know Todd Wilson was not the first to record all of Duruflé's output; Philippe Lefebvre did so quite a few years ago, and I'm not even sure he was the first either.

Latry is, of course, a great living French genius, though I'm not a huge fan of Duruflé's organ at St. Etienne-du-Mont. I heard it in person and it was more favorable, but it doesn't seem to record terribly well.

Anonymous said...

The first recording of Duruflé's organ music was by Herndon Spilman, a pupil of Marie Madeleine-Duruflé. The next, I believe, was a rare 1978 recording in Coventry Cathedral England by Walter Hillsman (both US organists I might add).

I have to agree, the Todd Wilson recording is by far & away the best to date. The tempo's are perfect, the playing virtuosic and the instrument/recording out of this world. I would love to hear Wilson re-record one day on a French organ; Notre Dame or St.Trinité?