GILLIAN WEIR: A Celebration

GILLIAN WEIR: A Celebration • Gillian Weir (org); Various performers • ELOQUENCE 484 1435 (22 CDs: 1,842:54)

Works by Jehan Alain, Bach, Boëllmann, Bruhns, John Bull, Buxtehude, Camilleri, Jacques Charpentier, Clérambault, Couperin, Dandrieu, Daquin, Demessieux, Dubois, Dupré, Duruflé, Eben, Franck, Frescobaldi, De Grigny, Heiller, Honegger, Kodály, Langlais, Marchand, Mathias, Mendelssohn, Messiaen, Mulet, Roberday, Luigi Rossi, Saint-Saëns, Scheidt, Sweelinck, Tomkins, Tournemire, Valente, Vierne, Widor

CD 1: BRUHNS Praeludium in G; in e, “Großes”; in e, “Kleines”. Fantasia on Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. SCHEIDT Passamezzo, SSWV 107.

CD 2: DANDRIEU Premier livre de pièces d’orgue: Suites in a; in g. 2 Magnificats.

CD 3: MARCHAND Premier livre d’orgue. Troisième livre d’orgue. Quatrième livre d’orgue. Cinquième livre d’orgue.

CD 4: BACH Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C, BWV 564. Fantasia in G, BWV 572. Trio Sonata in E♭, BWV 525. Passacaglia in c, BWV 582.

CD 5: COUPERIN Messe pour les Paroisses.

CD 6: COUPERIN Messe pour les Couvents. CLÉRAMBAULT Livre d’orgue: Suites in g; in d.

CD 7: ROBERDAY 12 Fugues et Caprices pour orgue.

CD 8: CAMILLERI Missa Mundi.

CD 9: WIDOR Organ Symphony No. 6, op. 42/2: Allegro. VIERNE 24 Pièces de fantaisie, op. 54/2: Impromptu. JOHN BULL Dr. Bull’s My Selfe. Dr. Bull’s Jewell. DE GRIGNY Premier livre d’orgue: Récit de tierce en taille. MULET Esquisses byzantines: Tu es Petra et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversus te. DAQUIN Noël XII – Noël Suisse. DUPRÉ Suite Bretonne, op. 21/2: Fileuse. LANGLAIS Suite brève. TOMKINS Worster Braules. SWEELINCK Mein junges Leben hat ein End. DUBOIS 12 Pièces Nouvelles: Toccata in g.

CD 10: MENDELSSOHN Hör mein Bitten1,2 3 Motets, op. 391 Kirchenmusik, op. 23: Ave Maria1,3 (2 Felicity Palmer (sop); 3 John Elwes (ten); 1 Roger Norrington, cond; 1 Heinrich Schütz Choir and Chorale). KODÁLY Psalm 114, from the Genevan Psalter.4 Laudes Organi – Fantasia on a 12th-Century Sequence (4 László Heltay, cond; 4 Brighton Festival Chorus)

CD 11: MESSIAEN Le banquet céleste. Les corps glorieux. Apparition de l’église éternelle.

CD 12: MESSIAEN Verset pour la fête de la dédicace. L’ascension – Quatre méditations symphoniques: Alléluias sereins d’une âme qui désire le ciel; Transports de joie d’une âme devant le gloire du Christ qui est la sienne. DUPRÉ Variations sur un Noël, op. 20. SAINT-SAËNS Fantaisie No. 1 in E♭. VIERNE 24 Pièces de fantaisie, op. 53/4: Feux follets; op. 53/6: Toccata, op. 55/4: Naïades. JACQUES CHARPENTIER L’ange à la trompette. DUPRÉ Deuxième Symphonie, op. 26.

CD 13: VIERNE 24 Pièces de fantaisie, op. 55/4: Naïades. MESSIAEN Les corps glorieux: Combat de la mort et de la vie. MATHIAS Variations on a Hymn Tune, “Braint”, op. 20. BUXTEHUDE Toccata in F, BuxWV 156. FRESCOBALDI Aria detto balletto. LUIGI ROSSI Toccata settima. HONEGGER Fugue. HEILLER Suite: In festo corpus Christi.

CD 14: VALENTE Lo ballo dell’ Intorica. FRANCK Choral No. 2 in b, M 39. HEILLER Tanz-Toccata. EBEN Faust: Walpurgisnacht. JEHAN ALAIN 3 Danses. MESSIAEN L’ascension: Transports de joie d’une âme devant le gloire du Christ qui est la sienne.

CD 15: DUPRÉ Symphonie-Passion, op. 23. JEHAN ALAIN Intermezzo. 2 Fantaisies. TOURNEMIRE Choral-paraphrase sur le Victimae Paschali. LANGLAIS Incantation pour un jour saint. DURUFLÉ Prélude sur l’Introït de l’Epiphanie. BOËLLMANN 12 Pièces pour orgue, op. 16/8: Prèmiere verset de procession sur l’Adoro Te. DEMESSIEUX 12 Choral-préludes sur des chants grégoriens pour orgue, op. 8: Rorate caeli; Adeste fidelis. Te Deum, op. 11.

CD 16: FRANCK Choral No. 1 in E, M 38. Cantabile, M 36. Grande pièce symphonique, M 29. Fantaisie in A, M 35. Prélude, Fugue et Variation, M 30. Pièce héroïque, M 37.

CD 17: FRANCK Choral No. 2 in b, M 39; No. 3 in a, M 40. Pastorale, M 31. Prière, M 32. Fantaisie in C, M 28. Andantino in g, M 25. Final, M 33.

CD 18: MESSIAEN Le banquet céleste. Diptyque – essai sur la vie terrestre et l’éternité bienheureuse. Apparition de l’église éternelle. L’ascension – Quatre méditations symphoniques.

CD 19: MESSIAEN La nativité du Seigneur.

CD 20: MESSIAEN Les corps glorieux.

CD 21: MESSIAEN Messe de la Pentecôte. Verset pour la fête de la dédicace. Livre d’orgue.

CD 22: MESSIAEN Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité.

In 44:3 (two issues back), I had the delightful assignment of interviewing renowned organist Gillian Weir—gracious, charming, insightful, and endowed with a wonderfully sly sense of humor and prodigious recall of memorable anecdotes. And now, the promised 22-CD set from Eloquence that provided the occasion for that interview has appeared—and is worth far more than the short wait required for it. In some ways this set only scratches the surface, in that it presents only a partial slice of Weir’s many studio recordings. Eloquence has previously issued other items on several discs, and releases with her have also appeared on the Argo, BBC, Chandos, Koss, Linn, Lyrita, MHS, Prelude, Priory, and Virgin Classics CD labels. The recordings here comprise three distinct collections. Discs 1–9 and part of Disc 10 are studio recordings originally issued on the Argo LP label; the remainder of Disc 10 and Discs 11–12 are a combination of items recorded in 1966 at the Royal Festival Hall (released by Decca Eloquence in 2014), Guildford Cathedral (first issued by Decca on LP in 1979), and a 1976 Prelude LP; Discs 13–22 offer world premiere issues of BBC broadcast recordings made in various locales throughout the world. Here is a list of recording sites represented in the set (in the UK unless otherwise indicated; unfortunately the booklet does not provide specifications for the instruments) plus the years in which the recordings were made there:

Disc Date Instrument/Location
1 1974 Clare College Chapel, Cambridge
2 1973 Leonhardskirche, Basel (Switzerland)
2–3 1974 Great Organ of Saint-Maximin de Thionville (France)
4 1974 Laurenskerk, Rotterdam (The Netherlands)
5–6 1972 Prediger-Kirche, Zurich (Switzerland)
6–7 1973 Leonhardskirche, Basel (Switzerland)
8 1974 Royal Festival Hall, London
9 1975 Hexham Abbey, Northumberland
10 1972 Kingsway Hall, London
10 1977 Guildford Cathedral, Surrey
11–12 1966 Royal Festival Hall, London
12 1976 Hradetzky Organ, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester
13 1964 St. Alban’s Cathedral and Abbey Church, Hertfordshire
13 1996 Clare College Chapel, Cambridge
14 1987 Royal Albert Hall, London
15 1998 Birmingham Oratory, Birmingham
15 1990 Royal Festival Hall, London
15 1994 Aarhus Domkirke, Aarhus (Denmark)
16–17 1984 Church of Saint-Sernin, Toulouse (France)
18–22 1979 Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC (USA)

In her extended, engaging, and engrossing essay for the lavishly illustrated 72-page booklet accompanying these discs, Weir remarks in passing that “my musical tastes are voracious.” That is, if anything, an understatement; as passing comments on repertoire played indicate, the array of composers listed in the headnote for this review, spanning five different centuries, comprises only a partial sample of her extraordinarily eclectic musical palette. As Rick Jones once wrote in the Evening Standard, “She can play anything: she is one of those musicians who are natural-born, and that’s what makes her unique.” (Let’s ignore the logical contradiction involved in pairing “one of those” with “unique” rather than “exceptional” and accept the intended point.) Upon listening to any recording by Weir, the facets that immediately strike the ear are first her amazing technical facility—she has some of the most cleanly articulated and most rhythmically precise finger- and foot-work one ever hears from an organist—her equally exceptional ear for colors of stops and registrations, and her utterly natural stylistic rightness in any composer.

Rather than run through the contents of the discs in order, which would lead to much needlessly repetitive commentary, it makes more sense to discuss the repertoire in stylistic blocs. First, there are the pre-Bach composers, with a mixture of items from Italian (Frescobaldi, Rossi, and Valente), English (Bull and Tomkins), and German/Danish/Dutch (Bruhns, Scheidt, Buxtehude, and Sweelinck) figures. In both the rippling, virtuosic Mediterranean pieces and the more stately ones from the northern climes, Weir has exactly the right ear and touch for drawing an authentic-sounding early Baroque style out of whatever instrument she employs. “Stately”—by no means to be equated with “slow”—is also the word that immediately springs to mind upon hearing both her Bach (alas, only one disc of that here) and several figures from the French Baroque (Clérambault, François Couperin, Dandrieu, Daquin, de Grigny, Marchand, and Roberday). Both are characterized by a certain measured gravitas, commensurate in the latter with their sacred function. The Roberday pieces, predating the others by almost two generations, are a particularly welcome find for me, with the stylistic fingerprints of the late Renaissance still very audible in them. If the interpretive pendulum in this French repertoire has in recent years swung towards more fleet renditions, Weir’s approach still remains entirely convincing on its own terms.

Apart from the works of César Franck, the 150 years or so of Classical and Romantic following Bach is unfortunately touched upon only in passing here. In the five Mendelssohn pieces Weir has a subsidiary role of providing support to two vocal soloists and a choir; Boëllmann, Dubois, and Saint-Saëns each have only one brief (albeit enjoyable) chestnut, and Widor is allowed just one movement from an organ symphony. As for Franck, which she performs on the Cavaillé-Coll at Saint-Sernin in Toulouse, Weir provides a baker’s dozen of the 12 standard works plus a lagniappe in the form of the 1889 Andantino in G Minor. Her tempos here are mainstream, eschewing the adherence to Franck’s controversially fast metronome markings as followed on some recordings by (for example) Jean Guillou. Somewhat to my surprise, given Weir’s flair for aural color, her portrait of Franck instead leans towards the meditative and introspective, though the big moments of course have requisite power and monumentality. While I’m not about to give up my classic set of these pieces by Demessieux, these are authoritative performances that can reside beside those.

The goodly majority of the offerings here are drawn from the 20th century, always an area of special strength for Weir: inevitably Messiaen (with a few pieces in multiple representations), and of course such mainstay names from France as Jehan Alain, Dupré, Duruflé, Langlais, Tournemiere, and Vierne, all showcased in renditions that are virtually definitive. But a good many lesser-known figures (at least with regards to organ music) are present as well: Jacques Charpentier (1933–2017), Jeanne Demessieux (1921–1968), and Henri Mulet (1878–1967) from France; Artur Honegger (1892–1955), Switzerland and France; Charles Camilleri (1931–2009), Malta; William Mathias (1934–1992), Wales; Anton Heiller (1923–1979), Austria; Petr Eben (1929–2007), the Czech Republic; and Zoltán Kodály (1882–1967), Hungary, with Weir once again supporting a choir in his two works. Of these figures, Demessieux, Honegger, Mulet (whose winsome piece here displays an obvious kinship to Widor’s famous Toccata), and Kodály fall on the tonally more conservative end of the modern spectrum, whereas Charpentier, Camilleri, Eben, Heiller, and Mathias are more dissonant and craggy. Eben’s little dance is a good deal of fun; Heiller draws upon a neo-Baroque idiom a degree more progressive than that of Hindemith (whose organ sonatas and concertos he recorded); Mathias falls in the mid-20th-century ambit of abstract British composers such as Fricker and Leighton; Charpentier, like Jehan Alain, favors clashing harmonies but not to the same degree as Camilleri and Messiaen. The works by Honegger, Mulet, and Kodály are quite appealing, but the three pieces of Demessieux are a particularly welcome find; it is clear that she was not only an organist of the first rank (she was contracted to record the then complete works of Messiaen when she was prematurely and fatally stricken with cancer), but also a composer of no mean skill. (We desperately need a modern recording of her complete works to replace the authoritative but sonically limited set of historic live performances from 1971–74 by her pupil Pierre Labric on Solstice.) On the other hand, I find the Missa mundi of Camilleri, a special commission for Weir, to be simply dreadful claptrap. Weir quite accurately describes it as being written “in a musical language that has echoes of both Messiaen and Stravinsky: indeed, one critic enthused ‘The organ now has its Rite of Spring!’.” For my part, I will add first that it’s very poor imitation Messiaen—its opening movement is a blatant rip-off of the first movement of Le corps glorieux—and second that Le sacre is a work I utterly loathe, so the clear kinship to that score likewise makes this work repellent to me. With respect to both composers, Camilleri employs all of their dissonances, but with none of their respective imaginations in so doing.

This set closes with the complete—as of 1979—organ works of Messiaen, performed on an instrument that had the composer’s enthusiastic endorsement. (He would subsequently write one more major organ work, the Livre du Saint-Sacrement, from 1984–85; three brief independent works were also found in his papers after his death.) As readers might correctly infer from the immediately preceding paragraph, I am no fan of Messiaen. I do periodically revisit repertoire I previously have not liked, to see if I might not experience some sort of epiphany. (And that has happened; about 20 years ago, almost overnight, I went from dismissing Elgar as a crashing bore to seeking avidly to lay my hands on every piece of music he wrote.) Given Weir’s nonpareil affinity for and mastery of Messiaen, I was truly hoping she would make a convert of me here, but it didn’t happen. The exercise was far from a total loss for me, however; Weir’s keen sense of musical architecture, manifested in her mastery of sonic colors, pinpoint articulations, and vibrant rhythms, laid bare for me and made comprehensible thematic and harmonic patterns in Messiaen that previously had been little more than incomprehensible, grating noise. Even if I don’t much care for it, I now feel that to some degree I understand it. With good-natured humor, Weir recounts a letter she received in which the correspondent wrote, “You can’t possibly tell me that you really like that music! You must be joking!” Well, it is obvious to me that she not only likes but loves it, and she makes it evident why: For her, Messiaen’s dissonances provide a canvas with which she can paint in vibrant sonic hues, with strong and striking contrasts and clashes, that mirror and depict both emotional and spiritual struggle and turmoil. In reviewing the previous Decca Eloquence release of the Messiaen items on Discs 11 and 12 back in 37:6, colleague Peter Burwasser wrote: “The organ music of Messiaen is not for everybody; it can be a strong dose of medicine for those disinclined, even as it is a bolt of invigorating lightening for the initiated…. For the devotees, this is required hearing. Don’t hesitate for a moment.” Let me say that the 1979 performances quite eclipse their predecessors both sonically and interpretively; and, of course, for Messiaen initiates Weir’s absolutely complete studio set on the Priory label (which remastered and supplemented the Collins Classics originals) is a sine qua non.

The items recorded in 1964, following the St. Albans competition, have somewhat muffled and distant recorded sound, and obvious deterioration of the original tapes. Those from 1966 are a step up, if still sonically limited. Everything else after that is in fine stereo sound, with those from the 1970s of course being analog recordings and those from the 1980s and 1990s digital ones. Occasionally in the broadcast recitals one can hear a distant cough or other bit of audience noise if the occasion was a live performance. Weir’s two essays in the booklet would almost justify purchase of this set without the CDs; they are supplemented by numerous photos and illustrations, and a meticulously detailed table of contents. If the Pierre Cochereau set on Solstice that I reviewed in 44:3 was the organ release of 2020, this is without question the organ release of 2021. For organ devotees, this is required hearing; don’t hesitate for a moment. And, happy 80th birthday, Gillian!

FANFARE: James A. Altena

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