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25 novembre 2016

In 1753, the cathedral church in Quebec, then in the colony of Nouvelle-France, shortly before its conquest by the British in the Seven Years’ War of 1756–63 (the French and Indian War to those on the west side of “the pond”), contracted with one Robert Richard to have a new organ built. The very skimpy booklet notes do not say what subsequently happened to that organ, or if it was even ever built. However, the original sales contract with specifications for the instrument survived, and in 2009 the firm of Juget-Sinclair undertook to recreate that organ, adhering as closely as possible to both the materials and construction techniques that would have been utilized in the 18th century. The resulting creation, op. 35 in the company’s catalog (see juget-sinclair.com/new_instruments.html for further details), is what is featured here. For a decidedly small instrument—essentially a positif organ with only one manual and 10 stops—the results are quite impressive.

The repertoire is drawn primarily but not exclusively from a 540-page music manuscript brought to Montreal in 1724 by Jean Girard (1696–1765), who served from then until his death as organist of the Church of Notre Dame in that city. The manuscript, rediscovered in 1978 by musicologist Élisabeth Gallat-Morin, is now known as the Livre d’Orgue de Montréal; its contents are mostly anonymous, with 16 verses being identified in other sources as compositions of Nicolas Lebègue (1631–1702). As I previously discussed both Lebègue and Guillaume Gabriel Nivers (1632–1714) in a review of similar repertoire played on a recent Nimbus CD by David Ponsford, I will pass over those two figures here.

Louis Marchand (1669–1732) was the son of an organist in Lyon and a child prodigy; according to one account he was offered the position of organist at the Nevers Cathedral at only age 14. He eventually made his career in Paris, serving as organist at a variety of churches (particularly that of the Cordeliers Convent) and the royal court. By all accounts he was an extraordinarily difficult and disagreeable individual, with a violent temper and given to scandalous conduct. The once oft-repeated story of him dodging a keyboard competition with Bach is now universally discounted. But according to another anecdote, after physically abusing his wife for years, he separated from her and refused to provide her any financial support. Louis XIV ordered half of his salary to be garnished for her maintenance. Marchand then allegedly stopped playing halfway through a Mass, confronted the king, and said, “Sire, if my wife gets half my salary, she may play half the service.” Despite his great fame and wide circle of admirers (including Bach and Rameau), relatively few of his works survive, with those being mostly early compositions: 12 published organ pieces and 42 more preserved in manuscript, two harpsichord suites published in 1702, and a few other items of mostly uncertain attribution.

Jean-Henri d’Anglebert (1635–1691), a shoemaker’s son, was born in Bar-le-Duc in Lorraine, but the earliest surviving mention of him is his 1659 marriage contract drawn up in Paris, when he wed the daughter of an organist. He made his career primarily as a harpsichordist in the employ of royal personages—Louis XIV; Philippe I, Duke of Orléans (1640–1701), the younger brother of the king; and later Dauphine Duchess Maria Anna Victoria of Bavaria (1660–1690), the wife of Louis the Grand Dauphin (1661–1711), who predeceased his famous father but whose son by the Dauphine became Louis XV. D’Anglebert is primarily remembered today for a set of four harpsichord suites published in 1689. Except for a single quatuor, the five fugues presented here comprise his entire surviving output for organ.

While this instrument cannot match those employed by Ponsford in the latter’s ongoing series of Nimbus CDs devoted to organ literature of the French Baroque, Yves-G. Préfontaine—like Harry S. Truman, the “G.” seems to be merely an initial and not an abbreviated name—plays with skill, verve, and imagination, and is recorded with exceptional clarity. The booklet notes are unfortunately rather sketchy. If you haven’t ventured into this repertoire before and are seeking an introduction, I’d go with any of the CDs by Ponsford, which are uniformly excellent; but if this literature is at least somewhat familiar turf and you are looking for a different take on this repertoire to augment your collection, then this disc is well worth acquiring; recommended.

© James A. Altena - Fanfare

The WholeNote
1 juin 2016

The brand-new organ in this recording is a replica of an instrument (no longer extant) built in 1753 in Paris for the Cathedral in Quebec City. It contains ten stops, all but two of which are divided, offering different timbres to the upper and lower halves of the keyboard.

The repertoire features works likely known to 18th-century Quebec players, including a six-movement Magnificat from the so-called Montreal Organ Book, the manuscript transported to New France in 1724 and discovered in the 1980s. The composers of the nearly 400 pieces in this collection are not named, but a couple of dozen are definitively attributed to Nicolas Lebègue. Appropriately, a further group by Lebègue (not from the MOB) follows, alongside representative compositions from his period by Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers, Louis Marchand and Jean Henry D’Anglebert.

There are 34 tracks; each piece lasts on average just over two minutes. Generally in classical French keyboard music one anticipates descriptive titles but there is only one, Lebègue’s “Les Cloches,” with its descending four-note scale suggesting bells. The rest are either liturgical pieces or fugues and other abstract types. The divided stops show to advantage in several pieces with prominent bass solos or based on dialogue between registers. Préfontaine demonstrates remarkable variety of approach and a good deal of freedom within the French baroque style, recalling the comment of a great figure in this music, François Couperin: “We write differently from what we play.” The performances are intelligently lifted off the page. The disc is well produced and a pleasure to hear. Listeners curious about how the Chapelle instrument looks as well as how it sounds may be disappointed however: front and back cover photos show portions of it, but the only artist photo shows Préfontaine at a much larger console, unidentified.

John Beckwith – The WholeNote