Sunday, December 14, 2008
The French Up North
12 Préludes-Poèmes for Piano, Op. 58
Lise Boucher, piano
ATMA Classique, ACD22329
Charles Tournemire (1870-1939) was titular organist at the Basilique Ste. Clotilde in Paris, a post previously held by César Franck. Ste Clotilde is one of the municipal church posts in Paris from which, along with the Paris Conservatoire (now the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris, or CNSMDP), came a remarkable school of composers from the middle 1800s. Indeed, César Franck can be considered the Godfather of this school, a movement which produced so many luminaries: Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens, Alexandre Guilmant, Charles-Marie Widor, Louis Vierne, Gabriel Fauré, Joseph Bonnet, Theodore Dubois, Camille Saint-Saens, Maurice Duruflé, Jean Langlais, Jeanne Demessieux, Marcel Dupré, Pierre Cochereau, Philippe Lefebvre, Olivier Messiaen. What a list. And the tradition continues to the present day: Jean Guillou at St. Eustache, Daniel Roth at St. Sulpice, Naji Hakim at Sainte-Trinité, Olivier Latry at Notre Dame and Vincent Warnier holds the organ chair at St. Etienne-du-mont jointly with Thierry Escaich.
Charles Tournemire is an important figure in this movement, both in his role as titular at Ste. Clotilde from 1898 til his death in 1939, and also as an instructor at the Conservatoire. (Many of the great figures of this movement held both church posts and teaching posts at the Conservatoire. Thus did their ideas find both academic and popular audiences, a perfect setup for ideas to take root and foment and evolve.) I first learned of him as one of the teachers of my man Maurice Duruflé, who is said to have learned his harmonic language from Tournemire.
Tournemire is mostly known for his immense organ cycle L'Orgue mystique, a collection of 51 suites of five movements each, based around the church's catalog of gregorian chant tunes. Mystical and sounding highly improvisational, L'Orgue mystique is a massive work intended to supply organ music for an entire year of church services. But l'Orgue mystique is not all Tournemire wrote. In addition to other organ works, he also composed several symphonies and works for solo piano. This present release of Préludes-Poèmes for solo piano slots neatly between Debussy and early Messiaen aesthetically. His harmonies are impressionistic, and the pieces are not strongly tonal. They remind me of Debussy's Preludes, but are less descriptive and have a weaker tonal center. These sound like challenging pieces to play.
The performance is by French-Canadian pianist Lise Boucher, and is excellent. She has a sensitive touch, and also a fiery power as needed. The recording is fine. I recommend this recording to other who, like myself, revere Debussy and Ravel, but find Messiaen's later forays into birdsong a bit hard to follow. Tournemire provides us a bridge between the two.