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Nicolas DE GRIGNY (1672 - 1703): Premier Livre d'Orgue

David Ponsford, organ*
L'école de Nivers (Deryck Webb, Russell Burton)**

rec: May 9 - 12, 2016, Sarlat-la-Canéda, Cathédrale Saint-Sacerdos*; Oct 2, 2016, Tewkesbury Abbey**
Nimbus Alliance - NI 6342 (2 CDs) (© 2017) (2.25'32")
Liner-notes: E; no lyrics
Cover, track-list & booklet

A solis ortus, hymn; Ave maris stella, hymn; Messe d'orgue; Veni Creator, hymn; Pange lingua, hymn; Verbum supernum, hymn

Russell Burton, Timothy Burton, Daniel Gilchrist, Jeremy Marshall, Deryck Webb, Elvin Young, chant; Philip Humphries, serpent

The organ has played a major part in the liturgy of the Christian church since the Renaissance but only a small number of compositions have been preserved from the early periods, and even from as late as the 17th and 18th centuries, far less organ music has come down to us than was actually played then in the many churches and chapels across Europe. The main reason is that improvisation was the most important skill expected of an organist. In Lutheran Germany, organists were among the most revered musicians in town; they played a key role in its musical life and often had many pupils. The latter accounts for why a number of organ works have been preserved; these sometimes had their roots in improvisations and were later written down, either by the organist himself or by his pupils, with a pedagogical purpose, and sometimes music was specifically written and published in order to instruct organists in the art of arranging a hymn.

Whereas a relatively large repertoire of organ music has come down to us from Germany, the organ repertoire from what is known as the 'classical period' in France - largely from the late 16th to the late 18th century - is rather limited. Here, the organ was mainly used to alternate with the choir in the performance of Mass and in other liturgical works, such as hymns. The printed oeuvre of some of the main composers of organ music is rather small; François Couperin, for instance, published two masses, Gaspard Corrette only one. We know of a published collection of twelve pieces by Louis Marchand; other of his pieces have been preserved in manuscript. Nicolas Lebègue was one of the most prolific composers, with three printed organ books; similarly, Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers, who specifically focused on liturgical music, published a large corpus of plainchant.

Nicolas de Grigny is generally considered to be one of the greatest representatives of the classical French organ school. As was so often the case, he followed in his father's footsteps. The latter was organist at Rheims Cathedral; Nicolas's grandfather and an uncle were also active as organists. In the late 1680s and early 1690s he was a pupil of Nicolas Lebègue, one of the organists of the Chapelle Royale. From 1693 to 1695 he was organist of the abbey church of St Denis, where the rulers of France were buried. From 1697 until his early death in 1703 he acted as organist at Rheims Cathedral. In 1699 he published his Premier livre d'orgue contenant une messe et les hymnes des principalles festes de l'année. The title suggests that more was to come, but his death prevented that happening.

What may have been the purpose of publishing such a book with organ pieces? For the composer it was certainly a way to display his talents. However, it was probably also intended as instruction for organists for the alternatim practice. Although organists were expected to improvise, it is unlikely that everyone of them had the skills to do so. A book like Grigny's could give him ideas for day-to-day practice in his own church. It seems unlikely that he could actually play them as written, either because of the technical requirements of Grigny's music, or because his pieces were written for the large organ he himself had at his disposal. Unfortunately that instrument has not survived; only its case is extant. In fact, relatively few instruments from the time have been preserved in a sufficiently good state to enable performances which do justice to the music of Grigny and other composers of his time. Here, David Ponsford plays the organ of Sarlat Cathedral.

Grigny was already famous in his own time; Johann Sebastian Bach copied the entire organ book and there is no doubt that it greatly influenced his development as a composer of organ music. We find the stylistic influences of French organ music in many of Bach's organ works, in both the free compositions and pieces based on chorales. Moreover, the titles of some pieces or the specifications of the registration are in French. One aspect which must particularly have appealed to Bach was Grigny's preference for, and command of, counterpoint. The French master generally preferred five-part textures; his fugues are particularly good examples. The same goes for the pleins-jeux which open the Mass and three of the hymns. This indicates that Grigny's organ music is more demanding and complex than that of other composers of organ music of the time.

As this music was intended for the alternatim practice, plainchant plays a major role. Grigny obeyed the instructions of the ecclesiastical authorities that the melodies of the planchant should be clearly recognizable in the first verse of each section of the mass. He also used material from plainchant in the remaining verses. In his hymns he largely follows the same procedure. The five hymns included in his organ book are connected to various feasts through the ecclesiastical year. Veni Creator is for Pentecost, Pange lingua and Verbum Supernum for Corpus Christi, Ave maris stella for Assumption and A solis ortus for Christmas.

Although French classical organ music can be - and often is - played independently, out of its liturgical context, it makes much sense to include plainchant. That is the case here. Especially interesting is the use of a serpent. New Grove gives this description: "A lip-energized wind instrument with side holes and a cup-shaped mouthpiece, sometimes called the 'bass of the cornett family'. Its original purpose was to strengthen the sound of church choirs, especially in Gregorian plainchant. In the mid-18th century it was adopted by military bands, where it was gradually replaced during the 19th century by the valved bass brass instruments." In France its use is well documented and therefore its participation greatly contributes to these performances' authenticity. There is one drawback: the texts - which unfortunately are not included in the booklet - are not very intelligible. Whether that is the natural result of using the serpent or simply poor recording balance, it is hard to say, but the latter certainly plays a role: I am not impressed by the way the vocal items have been recorded. Their addition is historically correct, the way of singing less so, as the singers use quite some vibrato.

Fortunately there is nothing to complain about in David Ponsford's interpretation. He fully explores the entire colour palette of this organ and underlines the often majestic character of Grigny's organ music. However, the more intimate pieces, such as the duos and trios, also come off impressively. The recording of the sound of the organ is exactly right.

It is very satisfying that Grigny's complete output is now available in such fine performances on such a magnificent organ. Lovers of French organ music probably already have the four previous volumes in this interesting series of recordings and this is a worthy sequel.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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