Midnight at St. Etienne du Mont
Joseph Nolan (organ)
In the Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris, Gil is picked up by the Peugeot on the steps of the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont: hence the catchy title of this latest organ release from Signum Classics. If that was not sufficient to help this album standout from the crowd there is also the fact that this was the church where Maurice Duruflé held sway, as organ titulaire, from 1930 until his death in 1986. Furthermote the CD also contains a premiere recording of a fine work by David Briggs.
Joseph Nolan will be familiar to readers who appreciate organ music as a result of his outstanding recordings, on the same label, of the works of Charles-Marie Widor played on some of the finest Cavaillé-Coll¹ organs in France. Since his initial studies at the Royal College of Music, Nolan has worked with such luminaries as Marie-Claire Alain and Gillian Weir. He has held an appointment at Her Majesty’s Chapels Royal and since 2008 he has been organist and Master of Music at St George’s Cathedral in Perth, Australia where he is held in very high esteem².
In the excellent accompanying notes, Joseph Nolan, explains that only organ titulaires of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont are permitted to record the complete works of Duruflé on this organ so that was not an option for this programme. Whilst Nolan was watching Midnight in Paris Louis Vierne’s programmatic music sprang to mind; hence we are treated to a programme of music with links to Vierne, as delightfully explained by Ates Orga in the useful booklet. The booklet also provides the usual stop-list for the organ but does not go into detail of its history and renovation.
The CD includes three pieces by Vierne, Duruflé’s Suite Op. 5, one of Duruflé’s transcriptions of Tournemire and, to the delight of the present reviewer, David Briggs’ Le Tombeau de Duruflé.
The CD gets off to a good start with a performance of one of Tournemire’s fine improvisations, reconstructed by Duruflé in the 1950s. Next up is Fantômes from Vierne’s Third Suite Op.54 followed by a movement from each of Vierne’s Symphonies Nos. 5 & 6, both of which stand alone effectively. Duruflé is represented by one of his most popular pieces the Suite Op. 5 where the Tocatta sounds all the better heard in the context of the complete suite. Finally, the icing on the cake, is Brigg’s Le Tombeau de Duruflé; a work that I have not heard since a memorable evening in Cirencester Parish Church when the re-built Willis/Harrison organ was inaugrated at the first Cirencester International Organ Festival. It was performed by the composer David Briggs when he was Concert Organist and Organist Emeritus at Gloucester Cathedral. He is currently based in Toronto and New York.
Le Tombeau de Duruflé is a substantial work lasting around half an hour. It is comprised of 11 sections reflecting the story of Christ, each based on plainchant melodies associated with the headings. The work opens majestically with Veni Creator (Come Creator Spirit) with its powerful introduction and continues through the beautiful. tender Hodie Christus natus est (The birth of Christ), on to the Crucifiction, Ecce lignum crucis before ending triumphantly with Christus vincit (Christ Conquers).
This fine performance of Briggs’ Le Tombeau de Duruflé, the first on CD, makes the album a must for officiandos of 20th and 21st Century organ music. Congratualtions to Joseph Nolan and Signum Classics for recording this valuable addition to the catalogue.
The entire programme is well chosen, expertly played, on an appropriate instrument, and recorded in good quality sound. It deserves to be heard by a wide audience and this release is certainly in the running for our Collectors’ Choice award next month.
¹ Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811 – 1899), was a great French organ builder. His work is considered to have inspired the magnificent compositions of the French Romantic Organ School – Franck, Widor, and Guilmant.
² In 2016 he was nominated by Limelight magazine as Artist of the Year.