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Hyperion Records

CDA67825 - Peeters: Organ Music
Angels in the Night (1896) by William Degouve de Nuncques (1867-1935)
Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo, Netherlands / Lauros / Giraudon / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: October 2009
Tonbridge School Chapel, Kent, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: January 2011
DISCID: 37118517
Total duration: 73 minutes 51 seconds

'This welcome release should do much to restore Peeters's reputation as one of the most craftsmanlike and consistently satisfying organist-composers of the past century … the Tonbridge Marcussen [is] ideally suited to Peeters's clear contrapuntal voice-leading. Beautifully recorded, with excellent notes by David Gammie' (Gramophone)

'One mentions the varied nature of the music on this disc because it is so interesting and worthwhile and is so relatively infrequently heard these days, but the main plaudits should go to Trinkwon, whose playing throughout, particularly his tempos, phrasing and registrations, are of the highest class … all in all this CD constitutes another most valuble and welcome issue from Hyperion—so much so that one hopes it will lead to others' (International Record Review)

Organ Music
Koraal  [2'44]
Scherzo  [3'38]
Adagio  [3'54]
Toccata  [4'10]
Theme: Moderato  [1'08]
Toccata  [3'50]
Fugue  [2'06]
Hymne  [1'39]

The Flemish composer-organist Flor Peeters was celebrated in his lifetime with a concert career that took him all around Europe, as well as to America, South Africa and Australia, while remaining the organist of St Rombout’s Cathedral in Mechelen. He was trained as a Catholic church musician and Gregorian chant and the medieval modes remained a lifelong inspiration for his music.

His mature music is often described as neoclassical, and most of it is essentially polyphonic, with an emphasis on simplicity and clarity, transparent linear textures and pungent, incisive tone-colours. Peeters was an almost exact contemporary of Maurice Duruflé, who shared his love of plainsong and the modes. But where Duruflé, with a typically French sensibility, conjured subtle impressionist soundscapes from his modal language, Peeters preferred sharper contours and brighter colours—Van Gogh, perhaps, compared with Duruflé’s Monet.

This disc includes a wide selection of his works for organ, encompassing large-scale concert works as well as some of his many chorale preludes. Peeters’ vast and expertly crafted oeuvre—matched in its size and scope only by a handful of other organ composers – displays great contrast and imagination.

Franciscus Florentius Peeters was born in July 1903 in the Flemish village of Tielen near Antwerp, where his father was the village organist, sexton and postmaster. The youngest of nine children, Peeters grew up surrounded by music. All the family played an instrument, but he soon outshone the others, and was admitted to the Lemmens Institute in Mechelen when he was sixteen. He completed the eight-year Church Music course in four years, and his teacher Oscar Depuydt—Professor of Organ at the Institute and Organist of St Rombout’s Cathedral—immediately appointed him as his deputy. Depuydt died soon afterwards, in March 1925, and at the age of twenty-one Peeters succeeded him as both Professor and Cathedral Organist, a post he held for sixty years until his death on his eighty-third birthday in 1986.

Teaching, performance and composition were all essential to the expression of Peeters’ creative musicality. He was Professor of Organ at the Lemmens Institute (1925–52), the Ghent Conservatory (1931–48), the Catholic College in Tilburg, Holland (1935–48), and from 1948 at the Royal Flemish Conservatory in Antwerp, where he became Director in 1952. After his retirement in 1968 an annual International Masterclass was established under his direction at the Cathedral, sponsored by the Ministry of Flemish Culture, and he also taught hundreds of students in masterclasses in America. In 1971 the King of Belgium awarded him the title of Baron; Peeters was only the third Belgian musician to receive this honour since 1830.

Peeters’ concert career began in Belgium and Holland, and gradually extended around Europe. After the War he made his first American tour in 1946 and became a regular visitor to the UK, while more distant travels took him to Russia, South Africa and Australia. But above all he was a composer, and he wrote music constantly and prolifically throughout his life. Apart from some songs, piano and chamber works, he specialized in vocal and choral music for the church, and music for his own instrument; his first organ work dates from 1923, the year of his graduation, and his last (Op 140) from 1986, the year of his death. The organ music ranges from virtuoso concert works to shorter and simpler pieces for liturgical use, including over 300 chorale preludes. ‘I do not compose at an instrument,’ he said, ‘do not improvise to get in the mood, but I write at my desk. A composition grows from within. When an idea or musical theme has sufficiently ripened inside me, then inevitably comes the moment when I have to write it down, where and whenever it may be: at home, on a journey, in a train, boat, plane. The craftsmanship is very important, but it should be subordinated to the creative process … When one is fully dedicated to one’s work, the inspiration will come.’

Flor Peeters was trained at the Lemmens Institute as a Catholic church musician. Gregorian chant was a lifelong source of inspiration, and he found a natural means of expression in the strength and purity of the medieval modes, which formed the basis of his own musical language. Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens, who founded the Institute in 1879, was a central figure in the organ world of the nineteenth century. His complete technical command of the instrument was founded on rational and precisely formulated principles, which he passed on to his French pupils Widor and Guilmant; inherited and rigidly codified by their pupil Marcel Dupré, these principles formed the foundation of the teaching of the Paris Conservatoire until the 1950s. Peeters was brought up in this tradition, and his early works exhibit many of the characteristics of the French style, with rich chromatic harmony and conventional ‘symphonic’ registration. He performed some of Dupré’s major works, but his greatest love was César Franck; Franck’s music appeared in almost all his concert programmes throughout his life. Peeters also found a twin soul in Franck’s successor at Ste-Clotilde in Paris, Charles Tournemire, who shared his love of plainsong and the old modes. Although Tournemire was twice Peeters’ age, and they were only able to meet personally on rare occasions, they formed a close friendship. When Tournemire died in 1939, he bequeathed to Peeters the original console played by Franck at Ste-Clotilde, which had been removed when the organ was modernized in 1933. This unpatriotic bequest caused an uproar in Paris, but the precious relic eventually reached Belgium after the War, and held pride of place as a valuable teaching aid in Peeters’ music studio in Mechelen.

However, this sympathy with the shared French tradition was only one element in Peeters’ inclusive and diverse artistic personality. He was Flemish, not French, and his passion for the culture of his own land led him in a different direction. Its rich heritage of old organs and the glories of its Renaissance polyphony naturally led him towards early music, in which he became a specialist, editing and publishing many anthologies of Old Masters—Flemish, of course, but also English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. His mature music is often described as neoclassical, and most of it is essentially polyphonic, with an emphasis on simplicity and clarity, transparent linear textures and pungent, incisive tone-colours. Peeters was an almost exact contemporary of Maurice Duruflé, who shared his love of plainsong and the modes. But where Duruflé, with a typically French sensibility, conjured subtle impressionist soundscapes from his modal language, Peeters preferred sharper contours and brighter colours—Van Gogh, perhaps, compared with Duruflé’s Monet.

Peeters’ largest orchestral work was a forty-minute Organ Concerto; composed during the dark final weeks of 1944 during the bloody Ardennes Offensive (the Battle of the Bulge), it was premiered on Belgian Radio after the Liberation the following year. In 1955 he published an abbreviated arrangement for organ solo of the concerto’s finale, under the title Concert Piece. It begins with the concerto’s spectacular solo cadenza and ends with the brilliant closing pages, with a quieter interlude in the middle, incorporating some of the more lyrical elements from the longer orchestral version. In the 1930s Peeters had composed a Flemish Rhapsody; he described it as ‘a fresco of the Flemish character: energetic rhythm, decorative form, vigorous substance, colourful registration, strong nature’, and this description could equally well be applied to the concerto.

The Aria also dates from the War years; it originated in 1943 as the slow movement of a Sonata for trumpet and piano, and it is still a permanent fixture on exam syllabuses for aspiring young trumpeters. Peeters also arranged it for violin, for cello, and for solo organ, and it is in this form that it is most often heard. The expressive melody unfolds above an accompaniment of soft repeated chords—a technique that Peeters used to equally telling effect in the slow movement of the Organ Concerto. As in so much of his finest work, there is a simplicity and sincerity in this music that speaks directly to the heart.

In his Suite modale of 1938 Peeters’ intention was to write an uncomplicated, tuneful work along the lines of Boëllmann’s popular Suite gothique, but in ‘a more contemporary, modal language’. The influence of the earlier work is only really evident in the majestic opening movement, which follows a similar design to Boëllmann’s Chorale, with a piano repeat of each phrase. The effervescent Scherzo is one of Peeters’ happiest inspirations. One of the hallmarks of his melodic style is the interval of a descending seventh, and this first appears during the bouncy second tune of the Scherzo. It re-appears, with very different effect, in the intense central section of the Adagio, and returns again in the pedal theme of the final Toccata. This is an exciting display piece in the French style with swirling toccata figuration above a big tune in the bass. The central section of the piece develops a new, more lyrical melody, derived from the initial motif of the main theme, with some canonic writing reminiscent of composers like Franck and Vierne.

Variationen und Finale über ein altflämisches Lied (Variations and Finale on an old Flemish song, 1929) was the first of Peeters’ big concert works. He loved his country’s heritage of carol and folk music, and this tune, Laet ons mit herten reyne, was one of his favourites; it had also been set many centuries earlier by John Bull. The work is in some respects a tribute to Marcel Dupré, to whom it is dedicated, and Dupré’s own Variations sur un vieux Noël, Op 20, provided an exact model for the first two variations, with a solo trumpet accompanied by a chromatic counter-melody, and a canon for two flutes accompanied by a murmuring voix céleste. But Peeters could never be a mere imitator, and this music is very much his own. His six vividly contrasted variations are more fully worked-out than Dupré’s, and this is far more than a piece of fanciful virtuoso display. The bouncing parallel fifths and dancing pedals of Variation 3 are followed by melancholy and mystery in Variation 4, and then by a scintillating stream of chromatic fourths in Variation 5. The heart of the work comes in the eloquent sixth variation, where the tune is decorated in the soprano voice in the style of a Bach chorale prelude. The Finale begins, like Dupré’s, with a fast, spiky fugue full of crafty contrapuntal devices, and then erupts into a thunderous concluding toccata.

The first of Peeters’ many sets of chorale preludes also has a specifically Flemish inspiration; this was a collection of ten Orgelchoräle (1936) based on Flemish carols. The first of the two chorales on this disc is an expressive coloratura prelude; recalling Bach’s O Mensch, bewein’, the coda is marked Adagissimo, and introduces an exquisite touch of polytonality. In the second prelude the carol tune is played by the pedals in the tenor register amid a flowing two-part invention on the manuals. The words of these carols translate as ‘We greet thee, Jesus, dear Lord’ and ‘Mary must go to Bethlehem’ respectively.

Peeters lost his father when he was only seven. When his mother died in 1935 he was moved to compose one of his most intense and personal works; the Élégie is dedicated In piam memoriam matris meae delectae (In blessed memory of my beloved mother). Marked Lento doloroso, and con grande espressione, the lament unfolds above an incessant tonic pedal, which is repeated in a syncopated ostinato throughout the first fifty bars while the music grows to a passionate climax and then subsides again. The ethereal final page moves from D minor to major, and introduces the plainsong In Paradisum: ‘May the angels lead you into Paradise …’. Here the ostinato is transformed into a gentle chime on the manuals, and the pedal note is sustained; it finally disappears at the very end while the hushed concluding chords float up to heaven.

In 1931 Tournemire dedicated a volume of his plainsong-based L’orgue mystique to Flor Peeters, and two years later Peeters returned the compliment in a major work of his own on a Gregorian theme, the flamboyant Toccata, fugue et hymne sur ‘Ave maris stella’. The theme is the ancient Hymn to the Blessed Virgin Ave maris stella—‘Hail star of the sea’. In the opening Toccata the tune is declaimed on the pedals below rolling waves of sound; the more thoughtful central section briefly recalls Tournemire in his most chastely modal mood, though the chunky syncopated chords that follow are pure Peeters. After the reprise of the Toccata, the melody becomes the subject of a swinging Fugue in the rhythm of a jig, and finally rings out in bold block chords in the triumphant concluding Hymne.

Peeters sketched out the Lied Symphony during his second concert tour of the USA in 1947, and completed it the following year. Inspired by the awe-inspiring landscapes of the American continent, the work was conceived as ‘a symphonic Benedicite’, a hymn of gratitude from the artist to the Creator: Benedicant te coeli, terra, mare et omnia quae in eis sunt (Heaven, earth, sea and all that therein is bless thee). Its five ‘Lieds’, or songs of praise, portray ocean, desert, flowers, mountains and sun. Lied to the Flowers was first sketched in California; a lyrical theme in free rhythm flows gently through a varied sequence of delicate textures and colours, evoking an idealized world of ‘flowers and fruit, warm earth and cool grass’. Dedicated to the legendary American virtuoso Virgil Fox, Lied to the Sun is the last and the most spectacular of Peeters’ three great organ toccatas. Two heroic themes weave their way through this resplendent hymn to the natural and the supernatural light, accompanied by a dazzling array of dynamic semiquaver figuration. The stark modality of the opening pages is warmed by richer harmonic colouring in the extended central section, building up to an even more brilliant reprise.

David Gammie © 2011

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