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William Hedley
MusicWeb International, March 2011

The name of Charles Tournemire is a minor one, even in the history of French music, and you won’t find much about him in the standard reference books. Nor are you likely to get a great deal of opportunity to hear his music: only two of the works on this disc have been published in printed form, and Sagesse is the only one to have been recorded before. The disc would thus be valuable for that reason alone.

Tournemire was born in Bordeaux. At the age of eleven he was appointed organist at the church of St. Pierre in that city, so he clearly a gifted child. He studied and later taught at the Paris Conservatoire, holding for most of his life the post of organist at the basilica of Sainte Clotilde, where César Franck had also been the organist. He wrote a great deal of organ music, but his astonishingly extensive catalogue contains much music for other forces too, including eight symphonies and four operas. Virtually all of this remains unperformed today, and even that passionate defender of obscure French music, Michel Plasson, includes no Tournemire in his monumental 37-disc EMI set, “Michel Plasson et la Musique Française”.

Maurice Ravel was Tournemire’s almost exact contemporary, but from the first bars of Sagesse we are far from the Basque composer’s crystalline world. This is music in the line of Gounod and Franck, more Germanic in sound and influence than immediately recognisable as anything French. The harmonies are chromatic and highly charged, the textures dense. The text is taken from a collection by Paul Verlaine, written in part while the poet was in prison following an incident with his lover, Arthur Rimbaud, and a revolver. During his imprisonment Verlaine, whose life up to then had been, one can fairly say, a turbulent one, became a Catholic, and the texts chosen by Tournemire recount the tortured response of a soul who feels unworthy to respond to Christ’s invocation to love him. Tournemire was himself a devout Catholic, and most of his work features some kind of religious element. The music well reflects the nature of the text, with the piano accompaniment providing much of the atmosphere; the vocal line, on the other hand, though expressive, is not immediately memorable or melodic. There are moments of sweet relief—when the soul speaks of the “pure winds of love”, for example—and others where the dramatic temperature rises significantly. Michael Bundy, writing in the booklet, describes Sagesse as austere, and this is fair comment, but the work closes with an admirably limpid piano postlude, and the overall effect is touching and convincing.

The vocal line occasionally flowers into something more truly melodic in Poème, but even so the piano writing is still more eloquently expressive than that for the voice. This is an integrated set of three songs to words by Albert Samain (1858–1900), not the most celebrated figure in French poetry, but one whose works clearly appealed to Tournemire as he set many of them to music, including most of the remaining songs on this disc. The first song makes great play of the tears that feature in almost every line, whereas the second rises with an affirmative passion one had not suspected to find in the composer’s armoury.

By the time we get to Triptyque the going is getting heavy, confirming the impression that this is music better appreciated in shortish doses. The three songs are all slow, serious meditations on the rise of Christian culture and ethics. The short piano prelude is lovely, the composer letting some light into the texture, but as soon as the voice enters the texture thickens again. This then hardly lets up before the equally lovely postlude which, again, provides a finish effective and convincing enough for the listener to want to return to the whole work.

The most approachable music on the disc is to be found in the oddly-titled Trois Lieder. The denseness of the other works is—slightly—attenuated here, perhaps because they are love songs dedicated to the composer’s wife. Solitude, on the other hand, is dark indeed, a sombre recitative wherein a disappointed lover seeks a solitude akin to the grave. Le désir qui palpite à travers la nature is a love song full of “ardour” and “fever”, well evoked in terms of atmosphere but short on lightness and melodic distinction. In spite of its title, the two lovers in Dialogue sacré sing for the most part about rather than to each other, the male voice alternating with the female, in this case the beautiful voice of Claire Seaton bringing a welcome brightness to a rather cheerless collection. Once again one is more aware of the beauty of the piano writing, and of the postlude in particular, than by anything particularly distinctive in the vocal line.

Michael Bundy makes the best possible case for this music, as would be expected from one who has made French song something of a speciality and has even written a book dealing with the songs of this very composer. Singing in French is an awesome challenge for all but the French, and Bundy makes as fine a shot at it as I can remember hearing. He is lucky to have the superb skills of Helen Crayford at his disposal: she rises to all the challenges, technical and stylistic, that these songs present. The recording is very fine…Bundy’s insert note is an admirable introduction to the composer and to these works…

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