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"Cintegabelle (France, 1742)" (Ugab, Vol. 1)

Yves Rechsteiner, Vincent Bernhardta, organ; Henri-Charles Caget, percussion

rec: Oct 2008, Cintegabelle, Église de la Nativité de la Sainte-Vierge
Alpha - 650 (© 2010) (77'34")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Jean-Philipp RAMEAU (1683-1764): "Airs & danses d'opéra - transcriptions pour orgue par Yves Rechsteiner"
Castor et Pollux: Tristes apprêts (air)a; Dardanus: rigaudon; prélude; air tendre sur les flûtes; Hippolyte et Aricie: tambourins; fuguette; tempête; Les Boréades: entrée; Les Fêtes d'Hébé: tambourin en rondeau; Les Indes Galantes: ouverture; danse des Sauvagesa; air vif pour Zéphir et les Fleurs; Tendre amour; gavottes; tierce en taille, air en récit, trio et duo; chaconne; Platée: musette en quatuora; tambourin; choeur en rondeau; menuet dans le goût de la vièle; Zoroastre: menuet en trio, second menuet en duo; air dans le goût de la romance; sarabande en trio

"Ugab ... a strange name for a new series of recordings. The word ugab, found in the Bible, is said to refer to one of the oldest instruments used by man for music making: the organ. Although the historical reality of that claim is contestable, we chose this title for its symbolic value, the fact that it sets our roots deep in the past. The aim of our series is to present exceptional instruments to a wide public".

Thus begins the text in the booklet of the first volume in a series of recordings with organ music on historical instruments. To date three discs have been released. The second is devoted to music of the 18th and the 19th century, whereas the latest was released earlier this year and contains only music of the 19th century. Both are beyond the scope of this site. The first volume is not only interesting in regard to the instrument, but also the repertoire.

Transcriptions of arias or instrumental pieces from operas for the harpsichord were common enough in the late 17th and in the 18th century in France. Many composers have followed this procedure, taking profit from the popularity of the operas by, especially, Jean-Baptiste Lully. Some composers created their own transcriptions, and Jean-Philippe Rameau is special in that he also followed the opposite direction: in his operas he made use of some harpsichord pieces he had written earlier in his career. In the 18th century Claude-Bénigne Balbastre was the most prominent composer who transcribed opera music. He was one of the most famous organists of his time, and every year large numbers of people attended his performances of Noëls. He played all kinds of music during services, as Charles Burney reports: "When the Magnificat was sung, he played likewise between each verse several menuets, fugues, imitations, and every species of music, even so hunting pieces and jugs, without surprising or offending the congregation, as far as I was able to discover". Therefore it can't come as a surprise thay he not only made transcriptions for harpsichord, but also for organ.

Among the composers whose opera music Balbastre transcribed for organ was Jean-Philippe Rameau, with whom he studied after he had settled in Paris in 1750. "We also know that, as a tribute to his teacher, Balbastre played the Pygmalion overture on the organ in Passy of the farmer-general La Pouplinière, and that Rameau expressed his admiration of the performance", Yves Rechsteiner writes in the liner-notes. Unfortunately the organ transcriptions of Balbastre have not been preserved. Therefore Rechsteiner has made his own transcriptions, but only after thoroughly studying everything that could give some insight in the way such transcriptions were constructed and performed in Rameau's time. In order to find out how opera music was transcribed he has turned to Balbastre's opera transcriptions for harpsichord. Information about the performance practice - in particular in regard to registration - has been derived from pieces, especially dances and character pieces, in Balbastre's Livre d'orgue de Dijon and in the Noëls by Louis-Claude Daquin. And of course Rameau's own transcriptions have also been used as a source of inspiration. The historical information leads, for instance, to the conviction that the organist has considerable freedom in changing the original texture as well as adding material of his own.

There is one aspect which needs to be mentioned: the use of percussion. This was an important element in French operas of the 17th and 18th centuries. It is explained in the booklet that organists had various ways of imitating elements which in the orchestra were produced by various percussion instruments. "Percussion or sound effects were thus constantly present in the pipe organ until the end of the nineteenth century, when organists favoured a more religious style largely looking towards the past", according to the booklet. That can't serve as a justification for the use of additional percussion, though. The percussion instruments are used to underline the rhythm. But if the transcriptions are good and the organist plays them well - and both is the case here - this is mostly superfluous. That is the case, for instance, in the menuet dans le goût de la vièle (Platée) and in particular in the gavottes from Les Indes Galantes. The latter also exists in a version for harpsichord by Rameau himself, and there its rhythm comes off perfectly without any percussion.

These are only minor issues, though. On the whole this is an impressive disc which shows both Rameau's music and the organ in their full glory. The overture from Les Indes Galantes which opens the programme is brilliantly played. One of the highlights is the air 'Tristes apprêts' from Castor et Pollux. The sarabande en trio from Zoroastre and the air tendre sur les flûtes are also very beautiful.

The organ dates from about 1741 and was originally built in the Cistercian Abbey of Boulbonne. In 1819 it was installed in the Église de la Nativité de la Sainte-Vierge of Cintegabelle. During the 19th and 20th centuries it was modified, and in 1989 it was restored to its original 18th-century state. It is in low pitch (a=396) and the temperament is unequal after Marpurg (1756). It is a magnificent instrument which full deserves to be documented on disc and suits the music perfectly.

Everyone who likes the French classical organ will love this disc. And admirers of Rameau will hear some of the highlights from his operas from a quite different angle. The documentation about the music and the organ is immaculate. This is the first volume of a promising series. May many discs of the same level follow.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Yves Rechsteiner

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