Les Djinns, Pysché, above all Ballade du désespéré and Eros, then Poème de l’amour et de la mer : Guillaume Tourniaire, conductor of The Queensland Orchestra, finds the colours and nuances to underline the symphonic genius of Louis Vierne and Ernest Chausson. This pro-French venture hailing from Australia becomes even more apposite when the works performed here (with tenor Steve Davislim) remain, it would seem, “prohibited” from performance in France. Happily this omission is repaired with this disc’s advocacy – Bravo Melba!
Bitter, dark, disconsolate – Vierne and Chausson are composers for the cursed soul, giving expression to its poisonous, debilitating bouts of melancholy. Melba justifiably grabs one’s attention with this release, evoking shades of anxiety, the disarming nature of loneliness, of eternal questions without answers and of unrequited longing.
No less than four ‘symphonic poems’ or ‘lyric poems for orchestra and vocal soloist’ illustrate the generic theme of Turbulent Heart: Here is Vierne (1870-1937) an alchemist with a distracted mind and dark thoughts; the born melodist who composed numerous song cycles for voice and piano; the vision-impaired composer who deployed an exceptional aural sensibility and care for sonorities – as evidenced here by rich orchestration – creating a mirror into a singular, personal universe of which Eros is the clearest example amongst the pearls revealed here. The other settings develop the macabre and the fantastic with undeniably inspired symphonic artistry. The highly gifted organist, student of Franck and then of Widor, head organist at Notre Dame in Paris is revealed here. While Eros demonstrates an orchestral completeness that is by turns insinuating, radical and increasingly lascivious (corresponding to the defeat of the poet/hero), one must also praise there the refinement of the colours and the fine instrumental delineations. These are perfectly sustained by the conductor Guillaume Tourniaire, to whom we are already indebted for another unperformed lyric score, also on Melba, of Saint-Saëns’ Hélène (1904). Released in July 2008, this was another revelation.
Les Djinns Op.25 (written in 1914, premiered in 1925), a setting of Hugo that his teacher Franck had already set in 1884, unites text and music eschewing the natural feeling for prosody that Vierne mastered. The enfeebling solitude of the poet/hero grows exponentially in the atmosphere of disquiet, profound fear and augmenting anxiety. Right from the start the narrator’s voice compliments the original ideas in the composition such as the crazed orchestral undulations that heighten the tension in this fantastic account of the flight and tangible threat of the evil spirits. These are conducted with precision and dramatic ardour, with very beautiful colours from The Queensland Orchestra. Under the conductor’s baton, the instrumental hyperactivity breaks out and rears up in the final prayer of the narrator, now actor, in this terrifying drama. One has to salute the interpretative skill of the artists in realising this extraordinary setting, the dark and deathly mystery of which reaches its climax in silence.
The same quest without answers occurs in Psyché (also from Hugo). The title doesn’t refer to mythology, but rather to the nocturnal butterfly that appears before the trembling, disquieted, questioning poet. Guillaume Tourniaire emphasises the delicacy and translucence of the airy orchestration as well as its sensuality. The whole leaves the poet miserable, vulnerable and deluded by this profound charm ... Steve Davislim succeeds ... thanks to his tones echoing those of orchestra’s. His high notes are never strained by tension and he conveys with ease the fertile imaginings of the texts that Vierne sets to music ...
Of the four poems, Eros Op.37, (1916, first performed in 1923, from a poem by Anna de Noailles) is my favourite: it is a score that impresses with the refinement of its textures, the evocation of sunset colours in its harmonic range, combining Liszt and Wagner, and bursts with Szymanowski-style effects (this last composer’s King Roger, for example, is replete with the same extravagant shape and similar subject matter of irresistible desire). The finesse of orchestra and conductor reach their apogee in this symphonic summit, the real revelation of the disc (in spite of the work’s somewhat vacuous and pretentious conclusion). It is a musical manifestation of the Parnassian aesthetic combining fatal contemplation, the mystery of death, unrequited longing, and corrupting, impassioned lasciviousness. Just as with Szymanowski, Eros appears luminous and victorious at dawn (violin solo over a carpet of sound from the harp at 4:47) evoking a tableau by Gustave Moreau – Sémélé regardant Zeus (Semele looking at Zeus) and struck by lightning at the same time. Thus Eros presents himself, simultaneously divine executioner and seducer (like the shepherd/Dionysus in King Roger).
There’s a similarly convincing performance of Ballade du désespéré, taken from Les Nuits d’hiver (Winter Nights) by Henri Murger. Conceived in 1931, the work was premiered posthumously in 1945; it is Maurice Duruflé, one of Vierne’s students, to whom we are indebted for completing the orchestration. The soprano Madeleine Richepin – Vierne’s mistress and the final consolation of his declining years – left the composer because she preferred another man. Already emotionally debilitated by earlier betrayals, the composer was left disconsolate. Grief subsumed the defeated man forcefully, violently and sharply. Named a Ballade, here the work seems more like funeral rites. The orchestra depicts the confrontation between the poet and a disquieting, ultimately victorious visitor who knocks upon his door. It is Fate or Death who presents himself to him who has lost everything. Several times the soloist sings “ton nom?” (your name?) with such terror, he must know he has already been lost. Shivering, frozen, terrified, the soloist is courageous in the difficult role of embodying the victim’s terror and also the seductive claws of the Grim Reaper. Another achievement of this recording.
While Vierne was subjected to a harsh life, Chausson, the son of an aristocrat and raised in a sheltered and comfortable environment should never have been racked by the same profound torments: a fascination with the macabre; almost affection for annihilation; the power and mystery of the beyond; the venomous, poisonous kiss. The performers complete the program with his Poème de l’amour et de la mer, Op.19 (1893, a setting of verses by his friend Maurice Bouchor), a vast diptych comprised of La fleur des eaux (Water flowers) and of La mort de l’amour (The Death of Love). The interest in this performance lies in the offering of the original tenor version when, typically in this music, one hears a mezzo soprano. The deep understanding of soloist and orchestra is marvellous in the final stage when the poem transforms into a funeral march, nuanced with the anxiety, torment, and the renouncement of a lost, cursed and inconsolable figure. A Wagnerian, Chausson is also a born melodist (the cello solo in the development of the reprise of the central theme: “le temps des lilas et des roses ne reviendra plus à ce printemps ci” – “the time of lilacs and roses will not return this spring”). How can one remain silent in the face of such ineffable musical beauty? Still more, how do you explain that our orchestras, supported by public funds, have heads preoccupied with performing the Germans (Brahms, Mahler, Mendelssohn...without intending any slight to these obviously) but risk depriving us of unknown treasures, such as these here of Vierne and Chausson?
Guillaume Tourniaire and his Australian orchestra were right to remind us of the quality of this music, in a meticulously prepared release with appreciably deluxe presentation and complete with translations of all the sung texts. Here, then, are delights and choice pieces from two “turbulent hearts”, almost brotherly souls. This production places Melba – after the excellent Hélène of Saint-Saëns, in the vanguard of those labels who advocate the cause of French composers with such timeliness. Magnificent.