Turbulent Heart

Graham Williams
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Louis Vierne (1870-1937) is best known as a composer of music for the organ. A pupil of César Franck and Charles-Marie Widor, he spent the final 37 years of his life as principal organist at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and during this period he composed his six ‘symphonies’ for solo organ, pieces that have become mainstays of the French post-romantic organ repertoire. Vierne also wrote music in other genres, including what is on offer here, but his eminence as an organist has, up to now, overshadowed these other compositions.

Melba’s ‘Turbulent’ Heart’ presents no less than four world-premiere recordings of his ‘symphonic poems for voice and orchestra’. These span the period between 1914 and 1931 and display a fecundity of imagination in writing both for the voice and orchestra that I am sure will surprise many listeners as much as it did me. There was not one of these four pieces that was ever less than enthralling in the marvellous performances on this disc.

The order in which the four symphonic poems on this SACD are presented alternates the stormy and dramatic pieces, ‘Les Djinns’ and ‘Ballade du désespéré’ with the more reflective and lyrical ‘Eros’ and ’Psyché’, a most effective arrangement.

In ‘Les Djinns’ Vierne sets Victor Hugo’s poem of the same name to thrilling music that invokes the arrival and eventual dispersion of the terrifying evil spirits. Steve Davislim captures the sense of unease in the opening verses to perfection and his voice rides effortlessly over the large orchestra as the excitement builds. Davislim delivers the central section, a Gounodesque prayer for salvation from the demons, with a nobility and simplicity that avoids any hint of cloying sentimentality.

‘Eros’ opens with a long evocative orchestral introduction that at once exemplifies the wonderfully sensitive orchestral playing that Guillaume Tourniaire elicits from The Queensland Orchestra throughout this recording. The sensual imagery of the poem by Contesse de Noailles is mirrored in the rich orchestral cushion of Tristan inspired music and Davislim’s full-throated voice captures the god’s pride as the piece reaches its ecstatic conclusion.

‘Ballade du désespéré’ is perhaps the finest and certainly the most dramatic of these four Vierne symphonic poems. Subtitled ‘lyric poem for tenor and orchestra’ and written in 1931, it had not been orchestrated by the time of the composer’s death. Vierne’s pupil Maurice Duruflé undertook that task and it received its first performance in 1945. More than the other works on this disc it reflects something of Vierne’s unhappy personal life. Murger’s poem, a dialogue between the poet and a stranger knocking on his door, eventually revealed as Death, inspired the composer to write music of overwhelming emotional power and depth. Duruflé’s magnificent orchestration perfectly matches the drama of the piece, which at times strikingly recalls orchestral passages in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (try 16.02-16.30). It would be hard to imagine a finer performance than that given here by Steve Davislim. He sings with an unfailing sensitivity to the changing mood of the poem, outstanding vocal elegance and, where appropriate, heroic timbre.

’Psyché ’returns to the poetry of Victor Hugo and is the shortest of these symphonic poems. It is more of an extended song with orchestra, but the luxuriant lyricism that unfolds over its brief span makes an apt contrast with the previous piece.

The substantial fill-up to the four Vierne pieces is, in one sense, another world premier recording. Chausson’s lovely ‘Poème de l’amour et de la mer’ is sung here by a tenor, as intended by the composer, rather than as so often by a female singer. Composed over a period of a number of years, it comprises two extended settings of poems by Maurice Boucher separated by a short orchestral interlude. The music of opening section, ’La fleur des eaux’, immediately creates a seascape quite different from that found in Debussy’s celebrated work and the whole work is suffused with a post-Wagnerian glow and fin-de siècle melancholy. Steve Davislim sings this intense music with unfailing ardour and beauty of tone that is matched by the rapturous playing of the orchestra and makes for a wonderful musical experience.

The 5.1 multi-channel recording is one of the finest I have heard from this source. The sound that Phil Rowlands and his team have achieved in the Brisbane studio has both tremendous impact and depth. Careful balancing has ensured that the orchestra never submerges Davislim’s voice so that his words remain audible even in the most climactic moments. Furthermore the many lovely instrumental solos played by members of the splendid Queensland Orchestra are captured with an impressive clarity and realistic instrumental bloom.

Presentation, as usual with Melba, is exemplary. The SACD is supplied in a Digipak containing a 99-page booklet providing detailed background information on the music and the texts and translations of the poems in three languages.

Those with a taste for sumptuous French late-romantic music beautifully recorded and performed with absolute commitment will find this a most exciting release.

***** 5 stars performance/***** 5 stars sonics