Midnight at St Etienne du Mont
For organists of a certain vintage the Parisian church of St Etienne du Mont is indelibly associated with Maurice Duruflé, its organiste titulaire from 1929 until his death in 1986. Appropriately Joseph Nolan places Duruflé’s most famous organ work, the Suite of 1931, at the centre of this stunningly recorded programme.
Nolan, whose Widor recordings have shown him to have an intelligent and instinctive feel for the French Romantic repertory, enhances that reputation here with playing that is perceptive, compelling and intensely musical. The Suite’s Prélude unfolds with tantalising slowness (although something goes a little awry around 3'46"), occasional flashes of virtuosity flaring up like candles before guttering away into the darkness. Nolan magically evokes the elusive danse macabre quality of the central Sicilienne, and for him the final Toccata is no empty display of virtuosity but a frenzied attempt to shake off the darkness of night and burst out into the blazing light of day.
Other works are related to Duruflé (if not to St Etienne) by being by his teachers. Tournemire, as profligate with his creative powers as Duruflé was sparing with his, is represented by a typically expansive plainsong-based improvisation, transcribed by his erstwhile student. While Nolan delivers the Tournemire with unabashed flair, he adds an undercurrent of aggression to the Vierne pieces. His take on the Scherzo from the Sixth Symphony is more like the angry hurling of rocks than the ‘tableau of cicadas chirping’ suggested by the colourful booklet notes. Nevertheless, ‘Fantômes’ inhabits a suitably eerie dimension and the finale from the Fifth Symphony effectively evokes the harsh clamour of a French carillon.
English organist David Briggs specialises in out-Frenching the French at plainsong-based improvisations, and no fewer than 11 plainchant themes crop up in Le tombeau de Duruflé. This is a tremendous tour de force for instrument and player, and both come up trumps here.
This disc makes a fitting tribute to an organist and composer who holds a special place in many hearts on either side of the English Channel.