Andante quasi adagio [7'01]
Allegro vivace [7'00]
The admired Goldner String Quartet presents two utterly charming—yet little-known—examples of French chamber music by contemporaneous composers Pierné and Vierne.
Pierné’s fame came from his conducting, and his compositions are forgotten today. His Piano Quintet shows the influences of Massenet and Franck which characterize his music, and features the Basque dance ‘zortzico’.
Vierne was a celebrated organist, and his compositions for organ are heard every Sunday wherever there are suitable instruments and performers. His String Quartet shows a lighter side: it contains the Intermezzo, described by Roger Nichols as ‘quite simply one of the most delicious movements in all French chamber music. Over it hovers the spirit of Berlioz’s ‘Queen Mab Scherzo’ and of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, conjured up by pizzicatos, tremolos and dancing phrases that suddenly turn on a centime piece from one key to another’.
Both the composers on this recording have suffered from the ‘success syndrome’, by which impressive talents in one area of musical activity obscure achievements in others. (We may also think of Rachmaninov, whose superlative piano playing has led to the relative downplaying of his standing as a composer; or of Stravinsky, who actually called The Firebird ‘a success obstacle’, because people for years wanted to hear it in preference to any of his other, as he felt, more characteristic works.)
Henri Constant Gabriel Pierné was born in Metz in Lorraine in 1863. His father was a professor at the Metz Conservatoire and his mother came from the other end of France, in Montpellier (from her, one biographer has opined, Gabriel inherited ‘a certain vivacity’). Wisely, as it turned out, his parents moved from Metz to Paris to escape the Franco-Prussian War, and the eight-year-old Gabriel entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1871, where he was taught by Massenet and César Franck. A grand haul of first prizes duly followed, in piano, counterpoint and organ, culminating in the Prix de Rome in 1882. On Franck’s death in 1890, Pierné took his place as organist at Sainte-Clotilde until 1898. But the decisive post was that of assistant conductor of the Colonne Orchestra which he assumed in 1903, from which he graduated to chief conductor on the death of Édouard Colonne in 1910. He remained in the post until 1934.
All this contributes to what one might call ‘a solid musical career’, with the implied parallel that maybe such solid musicians are unlikely to be particularly creative. One contra-indication in Pierné’s case comes in some of the premieres he was asked to conduct: of Stravinsky’s aforementioned Firebird in 1910, of part of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé in 1911, and of Jeux in 1913—all calling for a conducting technique, certainly, but also a generous helping of vivacity and imagination.
His chamber music, making up about a quarter of his total output, belongs to two distinct periods: 1882–1900 and 1916–1936. The first of these ended with his Violin Sonata, dedicated to Jacques Thibaud with whom he often played it. The Piano Quintet in E minor began the second period, and was premiered at the Société nationale on 22 February 1919 with the composer at the keyboard. The work is dedicated to Gabriel Fauré.
In general, the twin influences of Massenet and Franck combine happily in Pierné’s music, the grace and melodic ease of the former being given substance by the contrapuntal tendencies of the latter. But the opening of this Quintet owes nothing to either of them. Instead, an insistently rotating four-note ostinato looks forward to the 1920s when such ostinatos became all the rage, not least under the influence of Stravinsky. Over this repeated figure floats a curious iambic rhythm, imparting if anything a sense of loss or nostalgia, as in Debussy’s Prélude Des pas sur la neige. Certainly this opening is nothing like the ‘solid’ start one expects from a forty-minute chamber work. But suddenly, impelled by Franckian piano chords, the music takes wing in a climax on octave strings, before receding again. The central theme of the movement is built more on rhythm than anything, with a triplet followed by dotted notes. For much of the time all five instruments are playing, until the four-note ostinato returns, and then the iambic tag, as the music finally sinks to rest.
Pierné had already experimented in 1910 with the Basque dance the ‘zortzico’ in his incidental music to Pierre Loti’s play Ramuntcho about Basque smugglers (Pierné’s conducting of the overture, available on YouTube, gives some idea of his tight rhythmic control). The dance has five beats in a bar, involving dotted rhythms (tum-tum-ti-tum-ti), and Ravel had used a version of it, with three beats added on the end, in the first movement of his Piano Trio of 1915. Pierné begins by alternating the 5/8 of the zortzico with standard 4/8 bars, as though breaking us in gently. But the zortzico tune, when it does come, is a delightful exercise in the popular vein—maybe even an original Basque tune, though no one has identified it as yet. Mostly the movement consists of variations on this tune in different keys and with different harmonies, but a secondary idea does emerge in the shape of a rising scale, complementing the falling pattern of the zortzico. Finally Pierné combines the two in the unusual metre of 20/8, before the music once more sinks to rest, in a long haze of D flat major.
In the slow introduction to the finale, Pierné tips his hat respectfully to Franck by revisiting tunes and rhythms from the previous two movements, starting with that of the zortzico. With increasing contrapuntal complexity comes an increase in speed, until the dam breaks—or if you prefer, the clouds disperse and a sunny E major tune emerges, Allegro vivo ed agitato. Franckian modulations carry all before them, culminating in a new theme (though again based on dotted rhythms) accompanied by trumpet-like chords on the piano. From here, all is development, interrupted by a couple of relatively peaceful oases. Dotted rhyhms continue to predominate, though the height of complexity is reached when the zortzico’s 5/8 is combined with both a 4/8 and a 3/8. The race to the end is exhilarating and triumphant.
If conducting was Pierné’s ‘success obstacle’, for Vierne it was organ playing: in 1900, at the age of twenty-nine, he was appointed organist of Notre-Dame by a unanimous vote, which, in a world where everyone held rigorously to their own views as to what constituted good organ playing, spoke volumes. Born in Poitiers in 1870, he was nearly blind due to congenital cataracts and it was at an institution for blind students that he came under the wing of César Franck. In 1890, the year of Franck’s death, he entered Widor’s organ class at the Paris Conservatoire and won his first prize in 1894.
In this same year Vierne wrote his String Quartet. Although the firm of Hamelle agreed to publish it, they would print only the parts, not a complete score, which was not available until the 1980s, from a different publisher. (A Symphony in A minor of 1907–08 also remained unpublished for years, reinforcing the message that organists really should stay in their loft … unless, that is, you’re a genius of the Franck or Messiaen calibre.) Vierne remained at Notre-Dame until his death in 1937, and in 1920 the young Maurice Duruflé, going to him for lessons, ‘found him to be a warm-hearted, extremely charming man … I was moved by [his] handsome face with its fine features, to which blindness lent an expression of intense inner life. His eyes, partly open, looked up from time to time towards the sky, as though they were searching there for light.’
Much of the Quartet reveals that, even at the age of twenty-four, Vierne’s approach was spiritual after the manner of Franck—if Vierne had heard the premiere of the Debussy Quartet in December 1893, there are few signs of it here. There is instead an economy of means that matches his organ playing which, according to Duruflé, was notable for its balance and ease, devoid of florid gesturing. The opening Lento is a good example: it makes its point through imitative entries à la Bach and Franckian chromaticism, but condensed into a mere seven bars that leave us wanting more. In the Allegro agitato that follows, the two main themes are presented clearly, the first abrupt, the second smooth (in the approved manner) and with a long note in the middle of each phrase, a Franckian fingerprint. After this the development treats both ideas sequentially, then interspersing the two. We should note too that the upside-down version of the first theme refers back to the slow introduction. There are no tricks in the recapitulation, the second theme now moved correctly from F major to the tonic D major, and Vierne contents himself with the briefest of codas.
The Intermezzo is quite simply one of the most delicious movements in all French chamber music. Over it hovers the spirit of Berlioz’s ‘Queen Mab Scherzo’ and of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, conjured up by pizzicatos, tremolos and dancing phrases that suddenly turn on a centime piece from one key to another. It’s hard to imagine Vierne writing it, as he did, on outsized manuscript paper using, as his friend Marcel Dupré said, ‘a large pencil’. Again, he is determined not to outstay his welcome, and the ‘sign-off’ might sound perfunctory were it not so perfectly judged in both harmony and timing.
The slow movement, in standard ternary form, again exploits the Franckian long note in the middle of the phrase, giving the main theme a yearning quality that we now hear almost for the first time. In the central section Vierne injects some urgency into the proceedings with a figure of four, fast repeated notes that is shared between all four instruments. The first section duly recurs and at first it seems as though we’re heading for another downplayed ending; but Vierne has a surprise in store in the shape of an eighteen-bar coda all over a low tonic A. It may last only 70 seconds, but in the context of the relatively abrupt endings of the previous two movements it’s a masterstroke.
The finale follows the preceding pattern in containing two well contrasted themes, a brisk, stringy one in semiquavers, and a more lyrical one built around triplets and the ever-present long central note. All seems set for a standard rondo form, when the opening flourish returns—and we’re presented with a fugue. The relevance of this becomes clear when the countersubject, the figure that fits with the subject, turns out to be closely related to the movement’s stringy first theme. From here to the end, the main influence would seem to be that of Mendelssohn in academic rather than fairy mode (let it be said, there were many worse influences Vierne could have chosen …). Finally, D minor becomes D major according to the best traditions, providing a stirring conclusion to a work that throughout exhibits ‘the uncommon naturalness’ that so impressed Duruflé in Vierne’s organ playing.
Roger Nichols © 2014