Turbulent Heart

Christophe Rizoud
Forum Opéra (France) (English trans.)

‘Virgin lands’

After Saint-Saëns’ Hélène which, as you may remember, had the merit of (re)discovery, the Melba label continues to explore unknown scores from the French repertoire, this time with four large symphonic poems by Louis Vierne. Of this composer – head organist at Notre-Dame in Paris who died ‘in the saddle’ on the 2nd of June 1937 during his 1750th concert in the cathedral, having just performed his Stèle pour un Enfant Défunt – posterity has very sensibly noted his works for organ. That is not the whole story, however; in addition to his liturgical music and about 40 songs, the vocal output of Louis Vierne includes a ‘grand légende lyrique’ – Praxinoé – and these four poems for orchestra now recorded for the first time by Melba.

In the luxurious presentation booklet that accompanies the CD, Jacques Tchamkerten recounts the story of a musician to whom fate was not kind. Practically blind from birth, Louis Vierne suffered all his life from his infirmity, had the sadness of losing two children prematurely (one from tuberculosis, the other on the front in World War I) and endured turbulent relationships with three singers: Arlette Taskin, his wife and the mother of his children, was unfaithful and so he divorced her in 1909; Jeanne Montjovet who abandoned him; and Madeleine Richepin,  28 years younger than Vierne – their marriage leaving him completely disarmed. This cruel existence had some influence upon his writing in Les Djinns and in Ballade du désperéré, although 17 years separates them (the first dates from 1914 – the second from 1931). They show the same troubled spirit, even a certain morbidity. More tranquil, Psyché (1914) and Eros (1916) exude a heavy melancholy into which light breaks in from time to time. Jacques Tchamkerten studies in detail the feelings that run through these pieces, placing them in the context of their composition. Unsurprisingly, from his analysis emerges the constant of Wagnerism to which Louis Vierne, like his contemporaries, gave full rein. Vierne, however, knew how to integrate this influence in order to produce four personal works that make us contemplate with regret the operas that he never composed.

To do justice to these four neglected works, Melba has called in its ‘house tenor’, Steve Davislim. He was the seductive Pâris in Hélène, and also recorded for Melba a delicate bouquet of folksong arrangements by Britten and also Winterreise. ‘House tenor’: the term doesn’t really suit; it suggests a certain perfunctory routine when, on the contrary, Steve Davislim lacks neither audacity nor imagination. His voice has a wide, even range, solid in its lower reaches and in its middle, while being luminous at the top. It possesses natural projection and a caressing tone; an Australian Yann Beuron or Fritz Wunderlich in its character and elegance. There is not much to reproach in his French diction; no << brouit >> for << bruit >> or << fouit >> for << fuit >> and that’s remarkable for an Anglophone.  His tone avoids the trap of over-emphasis which could so easily be a danger in portraying these texts, yet expresses well enough to make the dramas come alive. One also has to acknowledge his dramatic sense. In Ballade du désespéré for example, the singer utilises colours and inflexions to distinguish the poet from the visitor trying to enter his house (who is in fact Death, bringing relief to all worldly woes).

Another flowering talent that Melba revealed with Hélène, Guillaume Tourniaire, confirms here his affinity with French music. Under his baton The Queensland Orchestra attains a transparency which is the hallmark of this repertoire. Their sonorities are made even more vibrant by the SACD surround sound, giving these ‘virgin lands’ an exultant perspective.

One finds the same approach in Poème de l’amour et de la mer which the always inspired Guillaume Tourniaire floats and which Steve Davislim entones with soft colours ....