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String Quartet in D minor, Op 12

'Pierné: Piano Quintet; Vierne: String Quartet' (CDA68036)
Pierné: Piano Quintet; Vierne: String Quartet
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Movement 1: Introduction: Lento – Allegro agitato
Movement 2: Intermezzo: Leggiero non troppo vivo
Movement 3: Andante quasi adagio
Movement 4: Allegro vivace

String Quartet in D minor, Op 12
In 1900, at the age of twenty-nine, Vierne 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 (A Symphony in A minor of 1907–08 also remained unpublished for years, reinforcing the message that organists really should stay in their loft … unless, that is, you’re a genius of the Franck or Messiaen calibre.)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.

from notes by Roger Nichols © 2014

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