Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Fabulous Discovery

Salve Regina: Works of Yves Castagnet, Olivier Latry and Francis Poulenc
Maitrise Notre-Dame de Paris
Editions Hortus
HORT-056 (2007)


There is no worse-kept secret here than my infatuation with the music of Maurice Duruflé and my broader love for the compositional school surrounding the great churches of Paris and the Paris Conservatoire from the 1850s or so up to the present day--indeed, I daresay I've belabored the point. But it's the very center point of my musical interest, and I've lived immersed in this music for a couple decades now and I seem never to tire of it.

I say the school continues to the present day, but the bulk of its glory is naturally enough shining at us from the past: César Franck, Charles-Marie Widor, Louis Vierne, Marcel Dupré, Maurice Duruflé, etc., etc. Probably the most famous flag-bearer of this school in recent years has been Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), and many music listeners have heard of Franck and perhaps Duruflé from his Requiem of 1948. But the rest, including the many active participants today, are likely to be unfamiliar to most folks.

Even I am a little surprised that the modern world has not overrun the school (not merely the school in the sense of the Conservatoire de Paris, where many of these composers studied and taught, but in this larger sense of practitioners of a particular musical aesthetic; I'm surprised the aesthetic continues). But continue it does, full steam ahead. On the couple visits I've made to Paris, I've been most fortunate to stumble upon--literally--noteworthy people doing noteworthy things, which had the effect of making me feel like the stream of a vibrant, if arcane, history was rushing onward and I was lucky enough to be able to step briefly into it.

Wading through YouTube videos a few weeks back (it's stunning how much stuff is on YouTube), I ran across an audio-and-still-photo video of a movement from a mass by the Notre Dame choir organist Yves Castagnet, the Sanctus. I'm aware of Mr. Castagnet from a recording or two (plus a performance I attended in Paris in 1998)--he is a former first prize winner for organ performance from the Conservatoire de Paris and is as accomplished as his comrades at Notre Dame, even if he leads a quieter public existence.

What I was not aware of before now was that Mr. Castagnet is a composer. This shouldn't be a surprise, but modern compositions from the present batch of Parisian organists seem fairly rare. Notre Dame's most famous organist, Olivier Latry, is a devoted improviser, as are his co-titulars at Notre Dame, Phillippe Lefebvre and Jean-Pierre Leguay (their compositions, if there are any, are not numerous or widely-played). So too with the organ loft of St. Sulpice. Daniel Roth has a couple compositions, but mostly he and his second, Sophie-Veronique Cauchefer-Choplin, are famous for their improvisational arts. I'm thrilled that on my visits to Paris I've been able to hear improvisations by Vincent Warnier and Jean Guillou and Phillippe Lefebvre and Ms. Cauchefer-Choplin; but the end result of this experience has been to convince me that the movement is now almost entirely about improvisation.

So this discovery of a composed mass by Yves Castagnet was to me a real find. And it was doubly thrilling to find it to be an engaging piece, energetic and confident and absolutely steeped in this aesthetic world. Written in an ABA form, the Sanctus takes the form of a typical French organ toccata with a vocal overlay. It's written in a virtuoso sextuple meter with thunderous bass octaves underpinning the soaring choral lines. I robbed the audio track from the video and promptly wore a hole in my hard drive listening again and again.

But the Messe had other movements which were nowhere to be found. I decided I had to locate the rest of it. The person posting the video said the track came from a CD obtained from the Notre Dame gift shop which contained the entire mass, plus a published work by Olivier Latry--another first for me!--and some Poulenc. I found the website for the cathedral's gift shop, but I was unable to discern which of the available CDs was the one in question--nor could I determine whether they would ship overseas. After a bit more poking, I found the CD label--Hortus--and was able to go to their website for more information. I spent another hour trying to find an online music seller who would have the CD available for MP3 download, but alas there were none; the disc was just a bit too obscure. But Hortus themselves would happily ship the CD (and another I found of Vierne and a mass by Jean-Pierre Leguay) to the US of A, and after a month or so I was in business.

A few observations: First, I don't remember any French vocal group sounding nearly so good as the Maitrise Notre Dame de Paris do on this and two other recent CD acquisitions. I don't know to whom to attribute the improvement, but the pitch and blend and precision, the dynamic control, and the quality of the soloists are all absolutely top shelf here. Second, the massive acoustic of Notre Dame, plus the thundering grand orgue (which sits nearly a city block distant from the singers) combine to make a really magical and singular sonic environment for music. The present disc is recorded close to the choir so that the organ's immense power, while still palpable, is kept at bay just a bit. This enables some of the organ's more aggressive timbres--especially the big pedal reeds--to be used to great effect without drowning out the choir (as I suspect would occur if the choir joined the organist up in the organ loft.

All three pieces on the CD use the Salve Regina chant as basic thematic material. Castagnet's Messe "Salve Regina" is the centerpiece. Written for mixed chorus and two organs, it contains four movements with interspersed plainchant sung by female voices only. For this performance, Olivier Latry mans the grand organ console and composer Castagnet takes his regular place at the choir organ. The work is mostly quiet and contemplative with the Salve Regina chant making regular appearances. The quiet is punctuated with occasional outbursts from the organ, especially the powerful close of the second-movement Gloria and the whole of the now-familiar third movement, the Sanctus. In the Sanctus, the grand organ part is given all the technical fireworks, and the quieter, more intimate choir organ given the very Duruflé-like central section. In fact, the whole work sounds very reminiscent of Duruflé's Op. 9 Requiem or his Op. 10 Quatre motets, a mixture of ancient melodies and modern, yet still tonal, harmonies (indeed, I found a British review of the CD in question which referred to the piece as "post-Duruflé," which gets right to the heart of it, I think). The piece is unmistakeably French, the tonality sounding very much like Ravel and Debussy and, yes, Duruflé.

Latry's Salve Regina for Organ and Voice is based on an improvisation he did, I believe, during an American concert tour. It intersperses the solo singing of chants with organ sketches of varying characters based on the Salve Regina phrases just sung. It is the only composed work of Latry's of which I've heard, and it naturally has very much the character of his improvisations. He is very inventive in his use of timbre at the grand orgue, and the effect is similar to the Castagnet work in its tenor and tonality. All these pieces are essentially tonal, but are unafraid to use spice as needed. The musicians are superb throughout, and the recording first rate. (One wonders what another recording of the work would sound like without this acoustic and that instrument.)

Duruflé himself gave us a very limited number of composed works. One is grateful for the wondrous pieces we have, pieces of absolute perfection and haunting beauty, but one naturally pines for more. I have no idea how many compositions Mr. Castagnet has in him, but on the strength of this work I will be continually on the lookout for anything new coming from his pen.

Highest recommendation for the organ lover.


dbackdad said...

Now, Bil, I didn't know you had another blog! Good stuff ... if a little above my head. But that's OK, my head needs to be expanded a bit.

Anonymous said...

The improvisation was done in 1998 during a recital at the University of Kansas (Helmuth Wolff Op. 40).

Anonymous said...

(By Latry)