During last Sunday’s splendid organ recital, one could imagine Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross transformed into a French cathedral. Maurice Clerc, emeritus organiste titulaire of Cathedrale Saint-Bénigne in Dijon, France, and a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, served up works by earlier generations of his fellow French cathedral organists. His countrymen and -women have a highly distinguished tradition of brilliant improvisation, and naturally I had hoped he would provide one of his own as well. His inclusion of written-out improvisations by Louis Vierne and Charles Tournemire, transcribed by Maurice Duruflé, who had studied with both men, more than sufficed. Additionally, he ended the program with an improvisation by his own teacher Pierre Cochereau. While all the included composers are known to organ audiences, staples combined nicely with rareties, offering varied fare and skillfully employing the many resources of the beautiful 1875 E. & G. G. Hook organ to great advantage.
As we observe the bicentenary of Cesar Franck’s birth this year, Clerc appropriately commenced with Franck’s Choral No. 3 in A Minor, which Franck completed mere weeks before his death in 1890. While the artist’s approach to tempos was idiosyncratic, the pathos of the work consistently came through. The passagework in the Quasi allegro sections was comfortably within the mainstream range of tempos, but the main theme, first stated in half-note chords, was played in nearly half-time, i.e., quarter notes, which rather undercut the world-weary, plaintive mood which should contrast with the earlier turbulent passagework. Clerc did partially compensate by frequent use of the swell boxes and expressive rubato, but “re-interpreting” Franck’s emotionally direct music by deviating from the printed score is not advisable, in my opinion. The central Adagio, however, was appropriately relaxed, featured sympathetic rubato, and employed the beautiful sounds of the solo Cornopean and accompanying flute, though when the first theme’s half-note chords reappeared in the major, it again felt somewhat hurried. The mounting excitement that led to the renewed agitation of the final section stirred the blood, however, and the final chords felt fittingly triumphant.
Following the great emotional trek of the Franck choral, the reconstructed Louis Vierne improvisation, Méditation, provided balm through the performer’s mellifluous playing as well as the strikingly beautiful sounds he selected: rich massed foundation stops that suggested those of Vierne’s beloved Cavaillé-Coll in Notre Dame de Paris. The coda employed the sweetly gleaming Clarabella (the American equivalent of the Flûte harmonique) soaring over the plush cushion of the Swell’s string celeste.
Charles-Marie Widor’s Bach’s Memento is a rarity on recital programs: a group of six transcriptions or paraphrases of Bach movements from different genres, both choral and instrumental. Clerc chose the final chorus of the St. Matthew Passion that also ends Widor’s suite. Despite its double chorus format, Bach’s chorus is intimate and sorrowful (the text includes “We sit down in tears” and “Rest gently, gently rest”). In the absence of the text, however, Widor opts to storm the heavens with outer sections at full organ (fff) and a central section ranging between mezzo forte and pianissimo, a romanticized outpouring of grief whose effect was admittedly cathartic. The pedal part especially impressed, ranging over virtually the entire pedalboard, as the artist “took it in stride.” The final phrase of the work is entirely Widor’s invention to provide for a resolution to the major not found in the original; indeed, the chords have distinct echoes of Widor’s third organ symphony. Yet the relief of the Picardy third final chord after grinding dissonances had undeniable power.
Although Charles Tournemire’s magnum opus is the 51 suites of L’orgue mystique, one for every office of the liturgical year, his most often played organ works perennially are the Five Improvisations, and chiefly the one on Victimae paschali Laudes. Some experts have claimed that Maurice Duruflé, working from the primitive 78 rpm recordings Tournemire made circa 1930, inevitably invented almost as much as he transcribed; be that as it may, they are compelling music, as their continued popularity attests. Duruflé, a onetime student of Tournemire, stated that these improvisations better represented the volatile temperament of his teacher than L’orgue mystique which he memorably described as having the effect of “music worked out at a desk”. Vierne and Tournemire were among the first organists to record improvisations, and their styles were starkly contrasted. Whereas Vierne’s approach was grounded on structure and form as in his compositions, Tournemire placed more emphasis on spontaneity and following his inspiration wherever it led. Clerc’s mercurial and virtuosic performance of the work evoked the freedom and varied moods of Tournemire’s recording. He attempted no literal “re-creation” of the original, but his flexible rhythm and use of numerous colors remained very much in its spirit. He created a moving contrast among the fierce majesty of the opening section, the gentle, poignant passage on the 8’ Vox Humana, and the increasing frenzy of the final section. One also had to admire the sheer athleticism the performer displayed in this demanding music.
Jean Langlais (1907-1991) was the third composer on this program who presided at the Cavaillé-Coll of the Basilica of Sainte-Clotilde in Paris, following in the footsteps of Franck and Tournemire. The Prelude of Langlais’s Suite Médiévale seemed to lead medieval organum into a modern harmonic context in parallel with the composer’s newer ways of using the essentially Romantic sound colors of Cavaillé-Coll. In a significant change of mood, Clerc then offered Langlais’s La Nativité, a tender portrait of Jesus’s birth, beginning with an undulating figure in the low register and a clarinet in the tenor range. Unlike the often-astringent harmonies of the previous work, here Langlais employed more consonant, quasi-Romantic harmonic language, and the performer created a warm, glowing atmosphere. In the closing pages, recalling the Vierne improvisation, he beautifully paired the lovely harmonic flute with the silky string celeste. The Langlais set concluded with one of his “greatest hits”, the Hymn of Thanksgiving “Te Deum”. Based on the Te Deum plainsong, this fervent hymn of praise, though an early work from 1934, is perhaps the most “distinctively Langlais” of the set. The chant is heard in octaves on smothered reeds before being interrupted by crunchy fortissimo chords. Clerc’s performance was blessed with clear textures, dramatic dynamic contrasts, an improvisatory freedom, and exemplary registrations that lent the music grandeur and exciting power but never sacrificed clarity.
As Clerc had studied improvisation with Pierre Cochereau (1924-1984), former chief organist of Notre Dame de Paris, it was unsurprising that it was he who transcribed the final work, a scherzo originally improvised by Cochereau at Notre Dame in 1974, by which time recording improvisations had become nearly routine. Like those of his teacher, Marcel Dupré, Cochereau’s improvisations favored large forms as if to demonstrate that no standard musical format (e.g., fugue, sonata-allegro, variations, etc.) was off-limits to a talented improviser. It was therefore a delight that this scherzo largely put aside intellectual rigor in favor of having fun: the literal meaning of “scherzo”, after all, is joke. Cochereau leads a merry dance of rollicking triplets with fresh harmonies and delicious changes of sound colors. Clerc rendered it with élan, humor, and continuous high energy. Nearing the end, the dynamic diminished to mezzo piano and the harmony turned cheeky with a cuckoo-like melodic figure—only to have full organ come crashing in for the concluding three chords. The delighted audience demanded an encore. By way of contrast, Clerc gave us J. S. Bach’s Erbarm dich, O Herre Gott (Have Mercy, Lord God), a homophonic setting with the choral in the soprano, accompanied by continuous eighth-note chords. He gave a straightforward account, simple and direct—possibly in penance for the irreverent romp it followed? Boston all too seldom hears international-caliber organists from other continents. I hope Monsieur Clerc—and others—will return.