This disc contains a number of examples of a particularly French form: the vocal symphonic poem. Such works can range from a straightforward scena to a true symphonic poem with sung "accompaniment” to an integrated work which elucidates the text both vocally and instrumentally. The Vierne pieces are among the least known works in his oeuvre, an output many are only now learning extends beyond the church organ loft. The Chausson is an old favorite, although in this recording it has a slight twist. Since the Vierne works are practically unknown, we will devote most of our attention to them.
Both Psyché and Les Djinns were written in 1914, although in reverse order. This year also saw the composition of his famous Pièces en style libre Op.31. Les Djinns is more or less an orchestral symphonic poem, with the singer as narrator. Vierne uses the form of Hugo’s poem to build up the terror of the deadly spirits flying through the air and then somewhat lessens the ever-present main theme to prepare for the soloist’s invocation to the prophet for protection. This is a wonderfully dramatic moment. However, the music associated with the Djinns never totally disappears and we are left with a slight feeling of unease at the end, not of triumph or relief. In Psyché we again have a poem by Hugo, but this work is slightly more conventional in form, consisting of a poet posing various questions to a butterfly. The interest lies in the way the composer varies the main woodwind theme in numerous ways to keep the music interesting, given the format of the poem. In this he excels himself both orchestrally and harmonically, leading to a final invocation that is quite impressive.
Two years can make quite a difference and the years between 1914 and 1916 produced big changes for Vierne, both personally and professionally. In the latter year his brother and several of his students were killed in the War and he began to show signs of the glaucoma that would eventually render him completely blind. Nevertheless, his work Eros, to a poem by Anna de Noailles, is about the sunny Mediterranean, though not only the pleasant aspects. It ends with what can be seen as a plea for death as escape from life. Musically, it is a true synthesis of voice and orchestra as a means of expression. Once again, it is based on a single, atmospheric theme, here even more masterfully developed than in the previous works. It proceeds from a rather eerie beginning to a triumphant finale that can only be described as amazing. Finally it reminds us that triumph can lead to the grave.
Vierne’s benefactress and muse in the twenties was a lady named Madeline Richepin. In 1929 he found out that she was to marry a famous doctor and this put him in a state of extreme upset. The composer thereupon wrote the Ballade du désepéré (Ballad of a despairing man) in response, numbering it “Op.61 (and last)”. Eventually there was an Op.62, the Organ Mass for the Dead, his last work. The Ballade is much more severe than its three predecessors and is based on several themes. It is despairing throughout, but also possessed of great drama and shows a more supple use of the solo voice. The poem describes the incessant knocking at the door by Death and the main character's acceptance, indeed, happiness, once he realizes that Death has arrived. There is a beautiful cello solo at the end as the situation is resolved, before a return of the opening material.
The Chausson Poème de l’amour et de la mer is usually sung by a soprano, but the original score specifies a tenor and that is the version here. Unlike the Vierne works, the Chausson consists of two vocal scenas or poems linked by an orchestral interlude. But the musical construction turns the parts into a complete symphonic poem. The first section, La fleur des eaux (The flower of the waters) is a description of the beloved in terms of lilacs, elaborating on the first of the work’s two main themes. The second theme enters, worried and agitated, describing the parting from the beloved in terms of the imagery of the sea and waves of agony. The Interlude continues the second theme, but even more mournfully. The second movement proper, La mort de l’amour (The Death of Love) starts with a variant of the second theme and goes through funereal waves of despair before leading to a section where the soloist is accompanied by a single cello. Finally there are reminiscences of the first theme, before the soloist and cellist state that the time of lilacs is over.
There are many recordings of the Chausson available. A couple of the classics are those with Dame Janet Baker and Jessye Norman. More recently there have been Linda Finnie and Jean-Francois La Pointe. Steve Davislim shows sufficient intensity and poetic control so as not to suffer by comparison with these others. In addition, he must handle an extremely wide range of emotions in the various works on this disk. He does so with distinction, from the ecstasy of parts of the Chausson to the depths of Vierne’s Ballade du désepéré. His readings of the poetry are very clear and he never loses sight of the main musical structure of each piece. The Queensland Orchestra plays with real devotion; perhaps as well as I have ever heard them. Part of this is due, I am sure, to the leadership of Tourniaire, who achieves an idiomatic French sound throughout and further demonstrates the ability he has shown in his recording of Saint-Saëns’ Hélène. The SACD is clear, without being overly sharp, as some such recordings are. One must make especial mention of the very erudite notes by Jacques Tchamkerten and of the lavishness of the overall presentation.