musica Dei donum
"French Organ Music from the Golden Age Volume 4: Nivers & Lebègue"
David Ponsford, organ
rec: May 19 - 21, Cathédrale Sainte Marie
Nimbus Alliance - NI 6292 (© 2014) (69'33")
Cover, track-list & booklet
Nicolas LEBÈGUE (c1631-1702):
Elévation in G ;
Elévation in g minor ;
Les cloches ;
Noël Or nous ditte Marie ;
Noël pour l'amour de Marie ;
Noël Une vierge pucelle ;
Offertoire sur le chant d'O Filii et Filiae ;
Guillaume-Gabriel NIVERS (c1632-1714):
Offertoire en fugue et dialogue ;
Suite du 1er ton ;
Suite du 1er ton 
Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers,  Livre d'orgue contenant cent pièces de tous les tons de l'église, 1665;
 2e livre d'orgue contenant la messe et les hymnes de l'église, 1667;
 3e livre d'orgue des huit tons de l'église, 1675;
 Nicolas Lebègue, Troisième livre d'orgue, 1685?
Even among organ lovers French organ music of the 17th and 18th centuries is not that well-known, certainly not in comparison to the oeuvre of another baroque master, Johann Sebastian Bach, or to the French symphonic organ music of the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the reasons is that this music needs to be played on French organs. On another type of organ, for instance a German baroque instrument, it would lose many of its characteristics. French composers often specified the stops to be used in various pieces which is exposed in titles such as récit de cromhorne or basse de trompette.
The present disc is part of a series of recordings with such repertoire; Nimbus released the first volume in 2013. Like the previous discs Volume 4 brings together music by a rather well-known master - Nicolas Lebègue - and pieces by a far less familiar composer, Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers.
The latter is generally considered the founder of the French organ school. He was born in a prosperous family; his father was a bourgeois de Paris. Nothing is known about his musical training; it is possible that he received a degree from Paris University. In the early 1650s he was appointed organist of Saint Sulpice; he held this post until his death. In 1678 he also became organist at the court in Versailles, a position he shared with three others. In 1681 he succeeded Henri du Mont as maître de musique to the Queen and in 1686 he became responsible for the music at the Maison Royale St Louis, the convent school at St Cyr for young ladies of noble birth. For the latter he composed sacred vocal music. He also published a number of volumes with plainchant which give much insight into the liturgical performance practice of the time. Organists of today often turn to these editions if they want to play liturgical organ music with the appropriate plainchant.
Nivers' organ works are collected in three livres which were printed in 1665, 1667 and 1675 respectively. The first comprises, according to the title, one hundred pieces in the various church modes. Ponsford selected from this book the Suite du premier ton. As one would expect it opens with a prélude which is followed by a fugue. It includes pieces which were to become an integral part of French organ books, such as plein jeu, duo and récit. The two récits here are for the voix humaine and the cromhorne respectively. This book is the first where we find such pieces. This suite also includes an echo, a diminution de la basse and a piece à deux choeurs. The third book comprises pieces des huit tons de l'église as the title page says. The Suite du premier ton includes the same sort of pieces as the suite from the first book, but their number has been extended from ten to thirteen, and most of them are slightly longer. There are two dialogues à 2 choeurs, another echo, two récits and a dialogue de récits, two duos, two basses and two fugues. The suite also opens with a prélude. The reference to the church modes is an indication that this music was intended for liturgical use, but Nivers did not indicate for which parts of the liturgy. The second book is the exception as the title indicates: 2e livre d'orgue contenant la messe et les hymnes de l'église. From this collection Ponsford plays the Offertoire en fugue et dialogue. It is always nice if this kind of music is performed in alternation with a choir singing the appropriate plainchant. However, a performance without plainchant is perfectly legitimate.
The addition of pieces by Nicolas-Antoine Lebègue makes sense as he not only was an exact contemporary of Nivers, but also was his colleague as one of the court's organists. He was from Laon; in contrast to Nivers he was of humble origin. Again nothing is known about his early musical education and we also don't know when he moved to Paris. His reputation must have risen quickly as in 1661 he was already called "the famous organist from Paris". From 1664 until his death he worked as organist of St Merri, in addition to his post at the court. He was not only famous as an organist, but also as a composer, a teacher and an expert in organ building. He often advised church authorities across the country when a new organ was to be built. Among his pupils we find some famous organists of the next generation, such as Nicolas de Grigny, François Dagincourt and Nicolas Geoffroy.
Apart from a collection of motets his oeuvre comprises only keyboard music: two books with harpsichord pieces were published in 1677 and 1687 respectively. In 1676, 1678 and 1685 he published his three organ books which are different in character and technical requirements. Ponsford selected pieces from the third book which is a mixture of liturgical works (Offertoires and Elévations) and music which was rather intended for public concerts, such as Noëls, Symphonies and Les cloches. The latter is a character piece as it would become popular after the turn of the century. This is an early example of the influence of secular music on organ music - a tendency which would increase in the early decades of the 18th century.
This is a most enjoyable release. There are several reasons to assess this disc postively. The first is the repertoire: especially Nivers' oeuvre is little known and the two suites recorded here show that he his unjustly neglected. Nivers is not only of historical importance; his music is of excellent quality. Ponsford has made an attractive selection of pieces from Lebègue's third book, with some Noëls, an Offertoire, two Elévations and the famous Les cloches, reflecting the variety of the collection. The second reason for enjoyment is the organ. It is an historical instrument - originally built in 1694 by Jean de Joyeuse - with an eventful 'biography'. The booklet includes a lengthy description of its history which shows the fundamental changes in the treatment of historical organs. However, the author can't hide his disappointment about some decisions made as part of the latest restoration in the 1990s. The way a historical instrument which has been considerably changed during the course of time has to be restored or reconstructed will always be a matter of debate. This disc proves that the restoration has brought back this organ to its former glory, even though in some way it is a mixture of old and new. Ponsford deserves praise for choosing this instrument for his performances.
The latter are the third reason to be happy with this disc. David Ponsford is an expert in French organ music; in 2011 Cambridge University Press published his book French Organ Music in the Reign of Louis XIV. Here he delivers fine illustrations of what is characteristic of this repertoire which is so different from everything composed elsewhere in Europe. One may assume he has extensively studied the instructions a composer like Nivers included in his organ books. We get here a thoroughly convincing interpretation of these works by Nivers and Lebègue. Let us hope more discs will follow.
Johan van Veen (© 2015)