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"Les Ombres Heureuses - Les organistes français de la fin de l'Ancien Régime"

Olivier Baumont, organa, piano organiséb

rec: Sept 2013, Bordeaux, Eglise Sainte-Croixa; Nov 2013, Paris, Cité de la Musiqueb
Tempéraments - TEM316053 (© 2014) (63'31")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Claude-Bénigne BALBASTRE (1724-1799): Air de flûte et violoncelle pour le forte piano in B flatb [5]; Airs de Petit(s) Cors in Fb [5]; Concerto in Da [2]; Musette in Fb [5]; Pastoralle Tout de Suitte in F/f minorb [5]; [Seconde partie] in B flatb [5]; Jean-Jacques BEAUVARLET-CHARPENTIER (1734-1794): Fuga III in a minorb [7]; Fuga IV in a minorb [6]; Josse-François-Joseph BENAUT (?-1794): Magnificat in e minor (plein jeu; fugue; voix humaine; récit arpégetto)a; Michel CORRETTE (1707-1795): 1re Marche des Ombres heureuses de Mr Corrette & 2e Marche des Ombres heureuses in E (transp to F)a [4]; Feste sauvage 1er Tambourin & 2ème Tambourin in G (transp to F)a [1]; Grand Jeu avec le Tonnerre in g minora [9]; Les Étoiles in Fa [1]; Plein jeu du VIe tona [3]; Armand-Louis COUPERIN (1727-1789): Dialogue entre le Chalumeau et le Basson avec accompagnement de flutes au clavier d'en haut in G/g minora; La Chasse in Da; Guillaume LASCEUX (1740-1831): Messe des Grands Solennels (Offertoire Symphonie concertante in G)a [8]

Sources: [1] Michel Corrette, Premier Livre de Pièces de clavecin, 1734; [2] Claude-Bénigne Balbastre, Livre contenant des Pièces de different genre d'Orgue et de Clavecin, 1749 [ms]; Michel Corrette, [3] Deuxième Livre de Pièces d'orgue, 1750; [4] VIIIe Livre des Amusemens du Parnasse, 1770; [5] div, Recueil de pièces de clavecin et de forte piano organisé par differens autheurs, after 1770; Jean-Jacques Beauvarlet-Charpentier, [6] Six Fugues pour orgue ou clavecin, 1777; [7] Journal d'orgue, 1783; [8] Guillaume Lasceux, Nouveau Journal de pièces d'orgue, c1783; [9] Michel Corrette, Pièces pour l'Orgue dans le Genre Nouveau, 1787

Some lovers of keyboard music and especially such music in the French tradition may raise an eyebrow if they see this disc's title and take a look at its programme. The music is all from an era which is often considered a period of decline in a highly respectable tradition going back to the early 17th century. One could probably say that the writing was on the wall when shortly after 1700 composers started to introduce elements of chamber music - influenced by the Italian style to boot - and even pieces from operas in their organ books. Olivier Baumont is very well aware of the prevailing view on this episode in music history, but strongly disagrees. "In music dictionaries, how can it be that every author deplores the impoverishment, even decadence, of a repertoire that has still not been studied in its entirety?" He approaches this repertoire from the angle of instrument-making and emphasizes the close relationship between instrument and music. "Organ music of the second half of the XVIIIth century is so undeniably more beautiful, nobler, richer and magically magnified when played on the multiple sound palette of an organ of the same period, that some could legitimately wonder whether the organ stops are not doing all the work".

Baumont plays two instruments. The first is the famous organ, built in 1749 by Dom Bédos de Celles in the church of Sainte-Croix in Bordeaux. It is often used for recordings and it is the only instrument of this organ builder. He was the author of a treatise on organ-building, L'Art du Facteur d'Orgue (1766-1778). In this book he also describes the second instrument Baumont plays: a piano organisé (organised piano), a mixture of fortepiano and organ, in analogy to the older claviorganum of the 17th century. The instrument used here is one of the rare extant organised pianos from the 18th century, built by Sébastien Érard & Frère in 1791.

For his programme Baumont selected pieces from several collections and ordered them "like the musical periodicals that were popular in Paris in the second half of the XVIIIth century. These journals for organ, harpsichord, harp or piano-forte were a vehicle for presenting varied works by several composers to a public avid for novelty. I have therefore constituted my own organ journal with the pieces that I like, and invite you to leaf through the pages".

We meet several of the main composers of keyboard music at the time. In a programme like this Claude-Bénigne Balbastre can't be omitted. He was probably the most brilliant organist of his time and especially famous for his Noëls which attracted large numbers of listeners at Christmas Eve. He also arranged many instrumental pieces and arias from operas which he even played during services in church. Whether the six pieces from the collection of 1770 are transcriptions is probably not known, but even if these are original works for keyboard they are very much in the style of his transcriptions. The Concerto in D is different. Concertos for a solo keyboard instrument and in particular the organ were quite popular in the 18th century. Bach transcripted instrumental concertos by Vivaldi and Handel published his concertos for organ and orchestra in versions without orchestral parts. It seems that Michel Corrette, who once visited England, transported this concept to France. Balbastre's Concerto in D is an original work for organ solo; there is no version with orchestra and it is also not a transcription. It is possible that Balbastre has written more such pieces, but this one is the only one which has come down to us.

Michel Corrette is represented with five pieces from several collections. Two of them are original harpsichord pieces from his Premier Livre de Pièces de clavecin of 1734. In his organ book of 1737 he included a table of pieces from that harpsichord collection which were fit for performance at the organ and added registration indications. Instrumental music is also the source of inspiration for the two pieces from the pen of Armand-Louis Couperin; the title of the Dialogue entre le Chalumeau et le Basson avec accompagnement de flutes au clavier d'en haut bears witness to that. He was a member of that distinguished dynasty of keyboard players and composers. Only two pieces for organ from his pen have been preserved.

There is also another side in the repertoire for organ of this time. The influence of secular music in the Magnificat in e minor by Josse-François-Joseph Benaut is undeniable, but it is different in character from most other pieces on this disc. Benaut worked as organist and harpsichord teacher and also transcribed opera arias. He was a victim of the Terror in 1794. Jean-Jacques Beauvarlet-Charpentier is certainly the odd man out here. He worked as organist in several churches and left a large oeuvre for keyboard. Among that output are almost 30 fugues, not exactly the most popular genre in his time. It is notable how different they are judged by various authors. In New Grove Beauvarlet-Charpentier is accused of "a feeble grasp of counterpoint" and "a hasty, improvisatory approach to form", whereas Baumont states that his fugues are "extremely interesting, with a varied and imaginative treatment of counterpoint".

Guillaume Lasceux is the latest composer in the programme who even experienced the Restoration in the early 19th century. It is interesting to note that with his Offertoire symphonie he returns to the distinguished form of the offertoire sur les grands jeux of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. At the same time Baumont notes that this piece reflects the influence of the orchestral sinfonia concertante, which was so popular in France - and elsewhere - in the decades around 1800. Such pieces were "highly motivating to organists who had instruments with multiple sonorities". Considering this one understands that the time of the symphonic organ (Cavaillé Coll and others) was near.

The Dom Bédos organ is a famous instrument, and with good reason. Its range of colours is expressive and makes it a suitable medium for the items in this disc's programme, despite their different features. However, the most intriguing part of this disc is the use of the organised fortepiano. I don't know whether there are other recordings with such an instrument, but at least I have heard it here for the very first time. It is a nice instrument which was used for domestic performance, and that makes it suitable for pieces such as the two fugues by Beauvarlet-Charpentier and the six pieces by Balbastre from the 1770 collection. The former's fugues have no pedal part and the time of publication makes it plausible that they could have been played on the then new fortepiano. One of the pieces by Balbastre even explicitly refers to this instrument. It produces a nice sound and it is a real enrichment of the array of historical keyboard instruments modern interpreters have at their disposal.

Let's return to the start of this review. Is this music really worthwhile or does it indeed attest to the general assessment of being specimens of a decline in the standard of composing for the keyboard? I assume that depends on what one expects from organ music. If one sees it as a liturgical instrument in the first place, one can hardly appreciate the growing influence of secular music and especially of opera. It also depends on which pieces a performer has selected. This programme is well chosen and includes several pieces one doesn't hear that often. Beauvarlet-Charpentier is not a household name and I had even never heard of Benaut. The quality of Balbastre's output is varied and includes some good pieces but also some trifles.

The programme ends with a piece which can only endorse the negative judgment of music from this period. Michel Corrette'sGrand Jeu avec le Tonnerre begins with the indication: "The Thunder ends by a placing a plank of wood on the last octave of the 'Pedalles de trompettes and bombardes' that the foot can depress ad libitum." It closes with another indication: "To imitate the clap of Thunder, play the last notes of the keyboard with the elbow". Baumont writes that "in all its outrageousness, it is simply joyous, amusing and festive". I can agree with that: outrageous it definitely is, and amusing also, if one listens to it at first, but it is certainly not up for repeated listening. And it may bring a smile on one's face, but it can hardly be taken seriously.

It is brilliantly played, no doubt about that. And that goes for the entire programme. Baumont is an excellent guide through his 'organ journal' and has written an intelligent and well-balanced essay in the booklet. The two instruments are another argument in favour of this disc. The organised fortepiano is an instrument I certainly would like to hear more often. But I am not so sure whether I would like to listen again to some of the pieces played here. Many of them just have too little substance.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Olivier Baumont

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