Famous organs of France (part 2 of 2)

St Maximilian


“Je vous laisse la porte ouvert: venez en haut apres la Messe” : the 86 year -old Pierre Bardon’s unhesitating welcome was as simple as that . Up we went yet again though the stone steps in this fine Basilica, whose West Front still lacks a facade to complete its intended architecture, were easy to negotiate. Onwards and upwards till we emerged next the towering instrument . We rounded the final corner to the sound of the deep pedal reed pronouncing the final entry of Bach’ s great C major Fugue.

The initiator of this remarkable ascending musical line , was tucked into the centre of this beautiful organ case. Our genial host is white haired ; he is wearing a grey woollen cardigan. He welcomes us warmly and immediately begins his introduction to the geography of this mighty creation , drawing out in turn the slightly floppy wooden stop handles , so long you could nearly imagine hanging your washing on them ( they reminded me of the wires for this purpose stretching outside the windows of Edinburgh tenements).
The moment the full family of reeds were extended I asked to play Father Sebastian Wolff’s noble ‘Fanfare for Holy Saturday ‘. Sure enough, the rasping reeds did it justice!
On now to my favourite Bach Chorale Prelude ” Ich ruf’ zu Dir , Herr Jesu Christ ” with the melodic line perfectly picked out by the ‘ Voix Humaine ‘aided by the Tremulant: a husky Callas would have approved!
More fun for me with Father Sebastian’s ‘Carillon ‘ , the trumpets and accompanying brilliant and gleaming chorus of mixtures faring well balance -wise, in this most generous acoustic .
In all this Monsieur Bardon plays a full part, deciding to turn my pages and from the expression on his face, I am told later, living every note.
But the grand finale is when I produce Bach’s great ‘ Piece d’Orgue ‘ ! Pierre Bardon’s face takes on an almost mischievous gleam , saying to me how he discovered a new and unusual registration 25 years ago to which he has adhered ever since.

Inside the organ of St Maximilian


Off I set on the Positif manual producing sparkling sounds behind me , moving upwards for the noble ‘Grave ‘section.The richest of Bach ‘s harmonic juxtapositions reign here , the music exploring confidently, yet despite occasional glances backwards, pacing inexorably forwards until having made its great points decides to head for the summit. Here , supporting from underneath the fully-illuminated five -part textures enters the magnificent , almost unbelievable pedal reed , rising stepwise like a giant higher and higher -and higher still and when virtually overwhelmed by this resulting effect the player drops swiftly an octave to gain strength for the penultimate cadence : a shattering diminished seventh chord !
What next , ‘we ask in the silence’?

Pierre Bardon is very busy pushing in the reeds and selecting exquisite bubbly flutes for Bach’s coda which I play on the gentle positif manual, over a constantly-repeated alternate crotchet /rest/ quaver pattern on the pedal . Only to encounter one more surprise : we reduce to a single wooden flute for the last bars and it’s satisfying concluding decorated final cadence.But before our final physical descent down those stone stairs yet another surprise: in behind a wooden panel ,on the interior West Wall behind the great bellows of the organ are frescos older than this instrument.

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Famous organs of France (part 1 of 2)

Famous organs of France (part 1 of 2)

An ‘organ -crawl’ ? Something of a mis-nomer unless one is exploring the innards of a closely-packed instrument. My friends Alain, Jan and I mounted the first of many steps from Marseiile’s Vieux Port for this week set up to gain first -hand and , indeed , first-feet knowledge of two of France’ s finest instruments.

The ancient church of Saint-Viktor is planted like a solid fortified sandcastle along the road from the relatively recent Boulangerie , founded in 1794 and still with a queue stretching out of the shop , its members awaiting their moment to buy navettes and other enticing edibles. Said Navettes , from the Latin word ‘navis’, meaning ship remind us of the first major visitors’ approach to France’s second city and its principal port , Messilia: the Greeks centuries ago.
Photo of Navettes
Gigantic cruise ships now dominate the seaward side of Marseille but our attentions are drawn by Alain , singer with Les Arts Florissants , to the calm grey-stoned nave of his home-church where he is the much-admired Cantor .He particularly wanted me to play the ‘Trompetes Chamades ‘ and there the pipes were , nearly the only horizontal attraction in this building , itself designed to draw the eye vertically-apart, at this moment from a floodlit stone sarcophagus whose intricate carvings were being explained to a young film cameraman by a priest.

Up the next set of stone steps we clambered , twisting and turning in the footsteps of the resident organist .We were rewarded by an even more beautiful , almost aerial view of the church from this position , ‘high and lifted up ‘ as are most large French organs ,built nestling against the West Wall.

It is the colour of the wood of rich organ case which impresses me at first as the draw stops or registers are carefully explained to me . I am informed that the great contemporary recitalists Jean Guillou and Marie -Claire Alain come to play . There is much to take in and having selected some flutes and a clear 4 foot pedal reed I begin with Peter Hurford’s Chorale Prelude ‘ Wem in Leidenstagen’ . I am listening to the acoustic of the building and discovering how effective to my ears , themselves quite a lot lower than the sound the pipes and I am producing , is the Swell Pedal even when the Recit manual is linked to the ‘Grand ‘ manual where my flutes are activated . I am also accustoming my fingers to the touch , weight-wise .

Drawing out the Reeds and the Choruses ( bright combinations of stops) I launch off into Theodore Dubois’s cheerful Toccata at a good spanking pace , occasionally leaping to the topmost manual and swiftly again to the lowest for the quieter , short interludes.¬†Widor’s Toccata fills the church now with dazzling tone and I relish marking out the irresistible melody in the pedals . I have been playing this masterpiece since I was 16 : that’s 55 years and it never loses its noble magic.

The resident organist can stay no longer and for Bach’s ‘Piece d’Orgue ‘ I am working hard to find unaided a suitable variety of registration .My efforts require instant reorganisation of my choice of manuals – and this pays off : an intensity of musical recognition of the sections adds freshness to my well-tried interpretation .
But the ‘Piece de Resistance’ in St Viktor’s is the Carillon by my friend by Father Sebastian Wolff of Buckfast Abbey in Devon, composed in 1992 for the Installation of the new Abbot. and how I also remember the wonderful,smell of soup pervading the Abbey Church that February afternoon !
Against the scintillating mixture-work of the instrument rears up the melody on Alain’s Trompetes Chamades!
Like this aeroplane in which I am writing this sentence we became airborne!

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Read part two of this entry