Turbulent Heart

Dominy Clements
MusicWeb International (UK)

Best known for his six Symphonies for organ, the blind organist and composer Louis Vierne studied with both César Franck and Charles-Marie Widor, and was principal organist at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris from 1900 to his death in 1937 while playing at the organ console. I must admit not to knowing much about his other work, but the excellent booklet notes in this chunkily voluminous production from Melba Records describe the personal agonies which dogged Vierne’s life, and the inspiration for his vocal works. The four secular vocal works presented here are a kind of combination between orchestral song and symphonic poem, very much in a highly-charged late romantic idiom.

Les Djinns sets Victor Hugo’s poem of the same name, describing the angst-ridden aura surrounding a flight of evil spirits. There is a little of Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice in the build-up from dread to sheer terror, and a galloping chase which can no doubt trace some origins back to Schubert’s Erlkönig. Eros sets a section from Les blouissements by the Countess Anna de Noailles, which deals with pagan sensuality related to the more common themes of unrequited love and the fear of death. The vocal lines are surrounded by beautifully orchestrated sounds which initially conjure a kind of sultry nocturne moving into a dawn and daylight of languid heat. This extended orchestral opening and the song itself builds to a passionate climax reserved for the last minute or so of the work.

Coloured by the consequences to Vierne of the marriage of his benefactress Madeleine Richepin, Ballade du désespéré is filled with all of the turbulence its title suggests. This is a powerful expression of character and mood expressed by both a vocal part of operatic strength, and uncompromisingly expressionistic orchestral gestures. The poem, Nuits d’hiver by Henri Murger, takes the form of a dialogue between the author and a stranger who, knocking at the door, is intent on entering the house. Taking on numerous tempting identities to gain ingress, the wildness of the bangs on the door takes on the opulence and voluptuousness of fame and love, wealth, and the promise of youth. The stranger is of course none other than Death personified, and, tired of life and resigned to his release from earthly concerns, the poet and composer follow death into the void. There is a great deal of stunning music in this heartfelt and intensely dramatic work. There are some marvellous orchestral effects, such as the muted strings where the music dips into a kind of smoky gloom at 11:16. Not always one for high-romantic expression, I am truly grateful to have been introduced to this powerful piece, and agree with Jacques Tchamkerten in his notes, where he states that this is one of Vierne’s - and indeed the period’s - strongest and most moving works.

Released from all this angst and intensity, the opening of Psyché initially brings us into more lyrical and pastoral regions. From Hugo’s Chansons des rues et des bois, the poem is an extended series of questions posed by the poet to a butterfly - a psyche - which has flown into his bedroom. Plenty of existential ground is covered, but in the end, the only answer is a kiss. As with the other songs in this sequence, the influence of Wagner can be felt in the harmonies and breadth of line in the music. Vierne builds and releases tension highly effectively, and the sumptuous colours of his orchestration are beautifully crafted and superbly performed by The Queensland Orchestra. Steve Davislim’s singing is excellent throughout, with plenty of character and depth, and with well-controlled and expressive phrasing and vibrato ...

Ernest Chausson’s life was, by contrast with that of Vierne, untroubled by strife and suffering. Moving in cultured circles, he studied with Jules Massenet and César Franck, and is seen by musical history as something of ‘a link between Franck and Debussy.’ One of his many artistic friends was the poet Maurice Boucher, and the Poème de l’amour et de la mer uses material from his Chansons de l’amour et de la mer. The piece as a whole is constructed in two parts separated by an orchestral interlude. The general mood is of melancholy, poignant nostalgia for happier times in the past. The final section La mort de l’amour is, after an initially more optimistic section, infused with minor-key funereal gloom. The piece was originally written for tenor voice, but as with the nicely done alternative of Susan Graham on Warner Classics and Jessye Norman on Erato, is often taken by female singers. It is good to have it here restored to its original version.

This release is in every way an admirable production. Rich SACD sound embraces the listener from beginning to end, the singing is unencumbered by hystrionics and the orchestral playing is nothing less than sublime. The thick, well bound booklet which fills a chunky gatefold package includes all texts in French, English and German. For anyone interested in French romanticism and orchestral song, this is something to put on your must-have wish list.