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Jacques BOYVIN (c1649 - 1706): "Suites from the Premier and Second livres d'orgue"

David Ponsford, organ

rec: May 1 - 4, 2017, Bolbec (F), Saint-Michel
Nimbus Alliance - NI 6358 (2 CDs) (© 2018) (2.38'40")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[Premier Livre d'orgue contenant les huit tons, 1690] Suite du premier ton; Suite du second ton; Suite du cinquième ton; Suite du sixième ton (extr); Suite du septième ton; Suite du huitième ton
[Second livre d'orgue contenant les huit tons, 1700] Suite du premier ton; Suite du troisième ton; Suite du quatrième ton; Suite du cinquième ton

Throughout history the organ has played a key role in the liturgy of the churches of the West. Certainly until the 18th century organists took a major position in music life of towns and villages. They must have played numerous pieces, either in free style, for instance before and after a service, or connected to liturgical music, such as masses, motets and hymns. Relatively little music has come down to us, and that can be explained by the fact that organists mostly improvised. What has been preserved, either in manuscript or in printed editions, was mostly intended as pedagogical material. Sometimes a teacher notated music for his pupils, sometimes they wrote down themselves what they had heard and learned from it. If he was a man of repute, such pieces were frequently copied and circulated widely in manuscript.

Only a few composers of organ music have left a substantial body of pieces. One of them is Girolamo Frescobaldi, although it needs to be added that a large part of his keyboard works is not exclusively intended for the organ and can also be played at the harpsichord. That is different with the likes of Dieterich Buxtehude, Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Gottfried Walther and Bach's pupil Johann Ludwig Krebs. It is not coincidental that they are all from Germany and that their organ works are connected to the Lutheran liturgy. Here music played a central part, as it was the counterpart and the continuation of the sermon. In the Catholic liturgy, the role of the organ was very different. It mainly played alternatim with the choir, which sang the liturgical chants, such as masses, antiphons, hymns and psalms. French composers who published organ music, sometimes did so with the specific indication that it was intended for performance during mass. The best-known examples are Nicolas de Grigny, François Couperin and Gaspard Corrette. Others published organ music in the form of suites, without any specific indication as to their role in the liturgy. However, even this music was written for liturgical use, and it was left to the performer to decide when and where to play the various pieces it included. The suites which Jacques Boyvin published in two volumes in 1690 and 1700 respectively could be used for mass as well as vesper services.

Boyvin is, as David Ponsford rightly observes in his liner-notes, a more or less neglected composer. Some of his suites have been recorded as part of anthologies, and right now only three recordings seem available which are entirely devoted to Boyvin's music. One of them is a complete recording of the first book by Michel Chapuis. The other recordings are those by Aude Heurtematte and Serge Schoonbroodt, but neither has recorded any of the two books complete. Sadly, this twofer on Nimbus Alliance is not complete either, and from the liner-notes I don't get the impression that a further disc with his music is planned.

Boyvin was born in Paris and received his musical education at the Hôpital des Quinze-Vingts, an institution for the blind, where is father resided and where Jacques held the position of organist from 1663 to 1674. In the latter year he was appointed organist at Rouen Cathedral; he held this post until his death. In 1683 the organ was destroyed during a storm, and between 1686 and 1689 the famous organ builder Robert Clicquot built a new large instrument, which clearly influenced the suites which are Boyvin's only compositions that have come down to us. This instrument has not been preserved, except the case. The organ David Ponsford decided to play in this recording was originally built for Saint-Croix-Saint-Ouen, also in Rouen, not far from the cathedral, by the Scottish-born Guillaume Lesselier (William Lesseler). In 1791 it was purchased by the town of Bolbec, northwest of Rouen, for its newly rebuilt church. The instrument was adapted to contemporary taste during the 19th and early 20th centuries, but in 1997/98 it was restored as far as possible to the state of 1791. It comprises four manuals (Positif, Grand Orgue, Récit, Echo) and pedal. The four manuals are needed for some of the pieces which close the respective suites, mostly with the indication Grand dialogue.

These suites comprise a various number of movements, and many of them include indications of the registers to be used, which is one of the typical features of classical French organ music. We find here titles as récit de cromhorne ou de petite tierce, basse de trompette, dialogue de voix humaine and récit grave de nazar, ou de tierce, ou de cromhorne. The latter offers the organist some alternatives, probably also depending on the possibilities of his instrument. In addition there are pieces with titles as duo and trio, which give the performer more options.

The order of the pieces is various, but most suites open with either a piece with the indication plein jeu or a prélude. These are of the same character and require the same kind of registration. Ponsford, in his extensive liner-notes, explains the different categories of pieces included in these suites, which is very helpful to understand their character. He points out that we find a considerable amount of counterpoint in these suites, but also various dance movements, especially in the duos, such as menuet and gavotte. There are two categories of trios: one with two dessus parts, which have to be played on the manuals, and one with the specific indication avec pédale. It is especially in the récits that we can hear the different registers of the organ. These indications in the score explain why this kind of music is so seldom played outside France. In most countries there are no organs which have the registers to do any justice to what the composers require. This also explains why this repertoire is far lesser known than, for instance, the organ works by Buxtehude and Bach.

That is an additional reason why we should be happy about this project of David Ponsford, who is a specialist in this repertoire, and has written a book on Organ Music in the Reign of Louis XIV (Cambridge, 2011; paperback edition 2016). Once again he shows his understanding of the music and the instruments needed to perform it. I should add that the meantone tuning considerably contributes to the impact of these suites. A piece like the Fugue chromhatique from the Suite du quatrième ton (book II) would lose much of its character, if the organ did not have an appropriate tuning. There are many other pieces where this spicy tuning also has a strong impact. Both the playing by Ponsford and the recording are outstanding and no organ aficionado should miss this set of discs.

On a technical note: Ponsford states in the booklet that "owing to the limited capacity of any CD (79 minutes 40 seconds is considered to be the maximum), it was necessary to excise one two-minute movement. Sadly, the final Grand dialogue from Suite 6, Book 1 (which might well have been an alternative to the penultimate Petit dialogue en fugue sans tremblant) had to be sacrificed in order to accommodate the remainder of this suite." I am a bit surprised about this, as in recent years I have received several discs which lasted well over 80 minutes, and they didn't give any problems. "Purchasers of the present 2-CD set may obtain a download of this movement, free of charge from". Unfortunately, the link didn't work when I tried, and I could not find any other link on the Wyastone website. I also could not find any address to communicate with Wyastone.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

David Ponsford

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