October 17, 2013
(++++) ORGANIC GROWTH
Vierne: Complete Organ Symphonies, Volume 2—Nos. 3 and 4. Hans-Eberhard Roß, organ. Audite. $19.99 (SACD).
The excellent Audite survey of the six Organ Symphonies of Louis Vierne (1870-1937) here continues with a second volume as distinguished as the first. Vierne was a master organist – at Notre-Dame, no less – and his works are enormously challenging to play; full cycles of them are exceptionally difficult to bring off. Hans-Eberhard Roß is doing a splendid job with these large-scale, broadly conceived and emotionally complex pieces. Roß plays the recently completed Goll Organ of St. Martin, Memmingen, which is a particularly felicitous choice for these Vierne works: its fullness and power are nicely complemented by delicacy and lyricism, providing the tremendous sonic and emotional range that these pieces require. And the polyphony of the music comes through clearly, thanks to the fine acoustics. Roß makes a number of changes to Vierne’s indications about registration and tempo, and while it can certainly be argued that Vierne’s own views of his works ought to hold sway, it is equally arguable that these symphonies benefit from an entirely fresh approach when played on an organ other than the Cavaillé-Coll instrument to which Vierne devoted his life at Notre-Dame.
The ultimate question is how effective Vierne’s works are in Roß’s interpretations – and the answer is that they come off beautifully. There is always a deep spiritual dimension to Vierne’s music, and Roß is sensitive to it without ever becoming overbearing or pushing the music too hard in a particular direction. These five-movement Vierne pieces are masterful works that truly deserve to be called symphonies, sounding not at all like the organ works of Bach and other masters of the Baroque, but clearly influenced by them; this too is an element of which Roß is quite aware. Symphony No. 3, in F-sharp minor, dates to 1911 – a year of personal tragedy for Vierne – and features a highly energetic first movement and a rather strange, almost grotesque Intermezzo instead of a Scherzo. Its slow movement is highly emotive, and the final toccata – which barely moves into the major key at the very end – could be a virtuoso showpiece if it did not contain such depth of feeling. Symphony No. 4 (1914) is even more impressive. Written in G minor, it opens with an extended slow movement, whose gloom and angst may well be connected with the start of World War I. This organ symphony is a more tightly knit work than the Third, using two first-movement themes to develop material for the entire work. It is also a more chromatic piece than its predecessor, with a sharpness relieved by some unusual approaches to the movements: the third, for example, is marked “Menuet: Tempo di Minuetto” (in 1914!) and has a distinctly light touch. A beautiful slow movement (appropriately designated “Romance”) leads to a dramatic finale with jazz-like elements that one would not expect to hear on the organ. The work as a whole is highly impressive – especially when played with the verve that Roß brings to it.
The fine sound of Audite’s SACD washes over the listener throughout the disk, pulling him or her entirely into Vierne’s universe, and showing that the symphonic form, in its many variations and incarnations, has retained its power over the centuries and can even be used in a highly effective way for pieces created for a single instrument – provided that an interpreter is equal to challenges of music composed in so complex a structure and that the instrument has symphonic capabilities, as the great organs (including that of St. Martin, Memmingen) decidedly do.