Tuesday, December 22, 2009

CD Review: Louis Vierne, Messe Solennelle

Louis Vierne, Messe Solennelle, Opus 16: A Recreation of a Traditional Latin Mass at St. Sulpice, Sunday of the Resurrection. Choeur d'Oratorio de Paris, Choeur Gregorien de Paris. JAV Recordings, 2009.

I was recently privileged to receive a number of review copies of the fine work of JAV Recordings, a small, homegrown CD production company with a special flair for the king of instruments, the organ. You may well ask what makes these organ recordings different from all the others? It's hard to swing a thurible in a religious goods store and not hit Original Organ Pieces The Whole World Loves to Play on Their Original Organs--it's between Gregorian Bubblebath and Three More Hits by the Six Irish Tenors. But that's a sad East German Trabant 1.1 puffing alongside JAV's luxury cars. This little company can hold its own against the big professional classical labels in terms of quality.

And JAV has produced what can only be called a musicological Rolls-Royce this year, just in time for Christmas. This massive, handsomely-packaged two-disk album takes as its framework the majestic organ-and-choral Messe Solennelle of Louis Vierne (1870-1937), the famed organist so associated with the Parisian church of Saint-Sulpice and its splendid choral tradition. Not only does it place the composition in its intended context--a full-fledged Easter mass, complete with chants, tolling bells, sung prayers and even a bit of atmospheric ambient noise--but was recorded at Saint-Sulpice itself, with Daniel Roth, the current titular organist at the keyboard. (There is a lot of music between these two CDs. This is the only recording of this mass that has been produced in this fashion. The result is musical and spiritual time-travel.

Louis Vierne began his musical life as a student of Charles Widor, the Paris Conservatoire's organ teacher and himself at one time organist at St.-Sulpice. He soon became Widor's deputy at the grand orgue of Saint-Sulpice, and in time became the titular organist at Notre-Dame in 1900. His Messe Solennelle, squarely in the tradition of Saint-Sulpice in general and Widor in particular, premiered at St. Sulpice on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, 1901, with Widor at the pedals of the principal organ and Vierne playing the orgue-de-choeur.

Vierne's mass was not, and was never intended to be, a concert mass; indeed, it was one of the most common mass-settings heard in French parishes. By returning it to this context, it becomes once again a living, breathing work. The music is handled by distinguished cast: the Choeur d'Oratorio de Paris, a 90-voice ensemble with a broad and distinguished background from sacred works to Beethoven, does the heavy lifting, with the chants taken by the Choeur Gregorien de Paris, a smaller, more intimate group which frequently sings in a liturgical context at Val-de-Grace. The group's female sopranos (substituting for the boys' voices of Vierne's time) do particularly marvelous things with the organ-and-choir alternating verses of the Victimae Paschali sung in the authentic Parisian manner. The abovementioned Daniel Roth, as well as the award-winning Eric Lebrun of Saint-Antoine des Quinze Vingts on the choir organ, and a group of talented soloists handling the parts of priest, deacon and subdeacon, round out the ensemble.

The mass's musical surroundings are surprisingly varied, yet harmonious, complementing and expanding the texture of Vierne's setting. Particularly splendid are the organ various improvisations on set liturgical melodies by Roth and Lebrun, which vary from the reverent and soothing (Le matin de Paques, which has an appropriately burbling, luminous tone to complement the Vidi Aquam) to the joyously playful (an improvisation on Haec Dies) and even thunderously grand (one following Terra tremuit, as to be expected), as contextually appropriate. "[T]o be an organist meant you were also an improvisor," as the album notes tell us, and it is glorious to see this unique skill at work here on this CD. As one would expect with Vierne, there are those glorious blow-your-speakers-out moments like the dramatic, thundering beginning of the Kyrie (known to my chorister friends as the "Make Yourself Sorry for Your Sins" Kyrie with good reason) but only where the text and action of the mystery of the Mass demands it, showing both the genius of Vierne and of his interpreters in this recording. One is led into these moments of drama carefully and with a sense of dramatic anticipation. It is particularly striking to see the majestic terror of the Kyrie shift suddenly to the majestic joy of the Gloria, with only a brief chanted incipit to separate them. When one compares these grandiose moments with the quieter, suitably introspective Benedictus with its sparing use of the organ and slow etherial movement (building steadily towards its concluding cry of "Hosanna!"), Vierne's range is nothing short of astonishing.

The chants accompanying the mass are sung in the style of Solesmes (whose reform had begun long before, in 1889), partially for practical reasons, lest the older, slower style of singing dominate the CD with its drawn-out length. The sinuous, sung chants are accompanied by the organ in a very discrete way that, while it may rankle some purists, does represent the local practice between 1899 and 1937, and complements the context quite successfully. There is much to be said for the recognition and preservation of such regional practices, especially when they grew out of such a well-developed local tradition as Saint-Sulpice possessed. (And, amusingly, there is even one instance of extremely-tuneful low-grade liturgical abuse appropriate to the period--the insertion of Vierne's wonderful Tantum Ergo, Op. 2, after the Communion Verse.)The practice of singing the Sequence ad alternim with organ-improvised versions mentioned above still continues today.

Yet the recording does not represent a static period in history: Vierne lived himself in a period of change and experiment in the realm of liturgical music. His musical career straddled the (well-intentioned but, let's face it, occasionally ham-fisted) musical reforms of Pius X, the Solesmnes reform, and Niedermeyer's rediscovery of early music. As in Vierne's day, several choice older pieces are also included, at the appropriate points in the mass: a polyphonic setting of the Alleluia by Gallus and the motet Jubilate Deo by one of the Gabrielis. This, combined with the free improvisations by Roth covering the Canon and parts of the Communion make this experience truly alive and more than a simple act of archaeological wish-fulfilment.

I am a bit of an early-music reconstruction junkie--what else can be said about someone who owns recreations of liturgies at Bach's church in Leipzig, Vespers at the Saxon court of the 1660s, a reconstruction of a Lutheran service circa 1620, and the Easter, Christmas and Coronation masses of San Marco in Venice? Some musical buffs may complain such works can reduce the sacred liturgy to Society for Creative Anachronism-style extravaganzas, but I think they are essential to restoring fine art to its place in the sacred liturgy, and reminding us that there is precious little beauty that cannot be traced, somehow, back to the font of the holy mass. Not to mention, as an aesthetic experience, the contrast of the various chants and readings brilliantly set off the mass parts, which otherwise would have seemed like an hour of unending crescendi. The interplay of textures, styles, and differing liturgical elements make the centerpiece of this album seem all the more rich and remarkable.

This is a good moment to mention the sixty-page booklet that is bound into the packaging, which looks to have been quite an elaborate project in itself. Not only does it include several learned essays, it also discusses in-depth the liturgical context of the mass setting itself, and that of the recording, as well as including the text of the entire Tridentine liturgy as it would have been undertaken in this context down to the words of the silent Canon. Vignette photos of the liturgical action, specially-commissioned for the album, accompany them (and with a moment of Catholic Where's Waldo, see if you can recognize the celebrant--he's been seen on The New Liturgical Movement quite a few times in the past!) I hope some cerebral musicologist will discover this album and remember on flipping through these pages, that there would have been no Vierne Mass had it not been for the God it is written in praise of, and the liturgy that sings those praises.

JAV Records, incidentally, is helmed by a gentleman, a friend of mine, who believes very strongly in the Latin Liturgy, and of the importance of beauty in its celebration, and it shows. The man knows his stuff. Classical music is an unforgiving field to try to make money in--even the big labels and stores often don't fare well, as the closure of the legendary Tower Records some years ago reminds us. That a small label like JAV would lavish such effort on its albums shows what a labor of love this is, and that the liturgy is at the heart of that love.

The liturgical context of this album reminds us that the liturgical experiences of the past four- or five-hundred years are by no means a static, uniform golden age, but had their unique and peculiar delights (and occasionally their abuses--Venetian clergy could be fined for interrupting the music at mass with their prayers!). This is not mere nostalgia. There is much for the professional musician and liturgist to learn from here, or even the humble parish priest dreaming of bigger and better things. The amateur will also find everything to his liking here, and may discover a little more about a corner of historic church music--and about the beauty of holiness--that he did not know. This CD is a truly one-of-a-kind monument to both Vierne's oeuvre, and to all the imagination and hard work that went into its production.

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