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Alan Swanson
Fanfare, March 2011

I suppose there are few who can say they have heard a song by Louis Vierne (1870–1937), and I was not among them before this recording came my way. Together with Charles-Marie Widor and Charles Tournemire, we associate this pupil of Franck and Widor almost exclusively with the organ, and then mostly with the finale of his first organ symphony (of six) or with a character-piece called Westminster Bells. Michael Bundy would like to bring nuance to this narrow perception. We have already had his disc of Widor songs and will, I understand, soon get his disc of songs by Tournemire. The present collection was recorded between 2003 and 2007.

Le Poème de l’amour (1924) is a substantial song cycle to poems by Vierne’s older contemporary Jean Richepin. Its 15 songs are grouped into four sections, each named after one of the seasons of the French Revolution, beginning with Floréal (spring), whose three generally sunny songs have, nonetheless, the occasional fleck of darkness foreshadowing things to come. The heat of the summer is often clearly sexual, as in the ecstatically erotic “Le Trésor,” the central song of four, the last of which speaks of the complete submission of the lover to his beloved. The four songs of the autumn section, certainly the most viscerally exciting, begin the long sequence into the decline of passion, even of love, which is completed in the final, winter, section. In his notes, Bundy describes the cycle as “a pointless tapestry of existence” and, while I am not quite sure what that means, he concludes, “That the cycle ends with a depiction of human futility against the relentless force of nature enhances an already depressing picture.” This assumes music works in clearly identifiable physical or psychological ways and of that there is little evidence. Vierne’s music does not need this sort of description, although, since Naxos does not provide texts, Bundy may feel that such a narrative will help the listener. Vierne’s accompaniments do not have the quirkiness of, say, Wolf’s or the wide-ranging rhapsodic quality of, say, Fauré’s, but they are related to the texts they serve, and this is no small gain.

Psyché (1926, Victor Hugo) has been recorded several times in its form for voice and orchestra. The claim here is that Vierne originally wrote it for voice and piano. It is a song whose eroticism is only immanent but nonetheless present: Psyché here is a butterfly of whom the narrator asks hard questions about love and meaning, to which the answer is a kiss, and it forms a musical foil to the works on either side of it. Bundy is pressed by the high tessitura and, in trying to float the long line, the sound is not always as mellifluous as the text.

La Ballade du désespéré (The Ballad of One Without Hope, 1931, Henri Murger) opens with a knock at the door. It is a dramatic and restless dialogue between a man and all that is past. It may also be the closest Vierne ever came to an opera, for it is really a small monodrama. It was later orchestrated by Maurice Duruflé. Again, Bundy has to work hard for the high notes; they are there, but they are not always pleasant, though that sort of chimes with the text. Jeremy Filsell accompanies these songs with energy and point.

The Poème has received several recordings, most recently by Corinne Orde (Roddard) and Mireille Delunsch (Timpani), and the last two works have been recorded in their orchestral guise by tenor Steve Davislim (Melba). That last recording was well recommended by Adrian Corleonis in Fanfare 33:3. One must go to the Naxos Web site for the words, but they are accompanied with good translations by Bundy and H.R. Nisbet. On my copy, the electronic track listings are in Chinese, my knowledge of which is, alas, nonexistent.

Henry Fogel
Fanfare, March 2011

Louis Vierne (1870–1937) is most well known to us as an organist and organ composer; this is the second disc of his songs that I have reviewed for Fanfare and it has become clear that he was a major composer in this genre. In Fanfare 29: 5 I reviewed a Deuxelles disc with soprano Rachel Santesso, and said “Vierne’s musical imagination is vivid, his melodic inspiration highly inventive, and his skill at shaping these songs into just the right lengths is impeccable.” You can apply that again to this Naxos recording, which does not duplicate anything from the earlier disc.

The major work here is a cycle of 15 songs, Le Poème de l’amour. Vierne’s life was an extraordinarily tragic one. He became blind from glaucoma; his one marriage ended in divorce (which, as an observant Catholic, denied him the right to marry again, despite the fact that it was his wife who was adulterous and bore an illegitimate child); his one other serious love affair ended unhappily; many of his friends and colleagues were killed in the First World War, as was his brother and one of his two sons (the other died in early childhood). Thus this cycle, perhaps his most significant expression of his inner rage and heartbreak, is not at all a happy work. These songs, for the most part, deal with betrayal, frustration, the pointlessness of life. There are occasional hints of sunshine, but in the end the feeling is one of a deep sadness. The final song describes mothers who have lost their sailor-sons to the sea, hurling rocks into the water to express their rage. The songs in this cycle are not what one would call “tuneful” in the traditional, hummable sense of that word. But they are gripping—they take you inside their bleak world and do not let you go.

Psyché is a more optimistic, hopeful piece, but the extended Ballade du désespéré is just what its title would lead you to believe. Vierne’s strong harmonic imagination is what gives these songs their life—that and his deeply moving ability to touch the listener with a tragic vision that never sinks to self pity. The more I listen to this disc, the more I admire the songs.

The performances are very good. Michael Bundy occasionally strains for a top note, but he clearly believes in these songs and conveys the desperation of the music vividly, and pianist Jeremy Filsell is right with him all the way. Naxos’s sound is very natural and the piano-voice balance is fine. I understand that some compromises have to be made to make Naxos’s low prices realistic, but I do wish that they would include texts and translations in the booklet. They do make them available online, but when you print them out you have an 8 1/2 by 11 piece of paper that doesn’t fit on your CD shelves easily. Still, having reviewed too many discs of rare song repertoire that provided no texts at all, Naxos deserves praise for at least giving us the possibility. And even more so for making available repertoire of this nature in excellent performances. This is a very important disc.

Robert A Moore
American Record Guide, March 2011

Bundy…sings with great energy, his French is very good; and he captures the longing, the ecstasy, and anguish of these songs…Filsell handles the sometimes demanding piano accompaniment with both fervor and gentleness…

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2010

Life could hardly have been more cruel than that endured by the French composer and organist, Louis Vierne, who was born with poor sight and ended his years in blindness. Today almost unknown outside of the organ loft, it is there that he holds an important place among the final flowering of the Romantic era. Yet it was in his songs that he gave vent to his feelings of frustration and the love that continually eluded him. Le poème de l’amour was typical of his growing view of the pointlessness of existence, its length—over forty minutes—going through the four seasons, ending with mothers of sailors pitifully hurling stones at the waves in a futile act of revenge at the loss of their sons. Vierne through life was to see those, young and old, taken from him in death, yet he never fully despaired as we hear in moments of brightness. Psyche is painted in bold colours and big climatic moments, La ballade du désespéré, having the stranger arriving at the house where he eventually reveals himself as Death, but is greeted with love. We can imagine it pictures Vierne wanting to embrace death. They do not travel well as they belong to that very specific timbre of the French school of singing, but in British terms the baritone, Michael Bundy, is reliable and stokes up plenty of vocal angst in Le bateau noir, the final section of Le poème de l’amour. His accompanist is the pianist and organist, Jeremy Filsell, who has already made a highly acclaimed recorded of Vierne’s complete organ symphonies. Well balanced sound.

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