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Customer Review

30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A remarkable CD of organ transcriptions., 22 Sept. 2004
This review is from: Midnight at Notre-Dame: Organ Transcriptions (Audio CD)
The superlatives for this CD must begin with the recorded sound, certainly the best I believe I've ever heard over a period of many years of listening to pipe organ recordings. This recording is a hybrid SACD that contains two layers and three sets of signals (SACD surround sound and SACD stereo in one layer and "conventional" CD audio in the other). Even the conventional CD audio signal (which is the only one I can evaluate at present) surpasses anything I've heard in terms of organ reproduction. And this is no ordinary organ: Nominally a Cavaillé-Coll organ dating from the 1860s, and then augmented in 1932, with yet further upgrades in 1963 and again in 1992, it is among the finest organs in the world. And it is in one of the most famous venues of all: The Cathedral de Notre-Dame in Paris. (The technical details at the back of the booklet state that the Cathedral has had an organ dating back as far as 1402, but it was with the Cavaillé-Coll effort that it reached its full bloom and fame.) Even in "ordinary" stereo CD reproduction, the sound field seems perfect; the frequency range is awesome, with rock-solid bass from the 32' pipes and sweet reproduction of the flute stops, with never a hint of background noise from what must be a prodigious air-handling system for the 110 stops that are part of the organ.
Despite the three stages of 20th century modernization, the organ remains, in terms of its voicing, a paragon of the "Romantic symphonic aesthetic" that was common for its late-19th century time. And the works presented in this album typify that sensibility, even if it did encroach into the early part of the 20th century. All are transcriptions of works for other instruments and forces, and all but one of these transcriptions have been done by French organists/composers who were well-known (Marcel Dupré, Maurice Duruflé, Jean Guillou, Louis Vierne) and not so well-known (Henri Busser, Henri Messerer). The "odd man out" in the collection is Franz Liszt (no mean organist himself), who transcribed Wagner's "Pilgrims' Chorus" from "Tannhäuser," but not in a way that can be said to be a stylistic anomaly relative to the other transcriptions.
The album opens and closes with pairs of transcriptions of works by J. S. Bach, concluding with a marvelous transcription of Bach's famous Chaconne from his Partita for Solo Violin, BWV 1004 by Henri Messerer, certainly not as famous as Dupré, Duruflé, Guillou or Vierne but well up to the task set out here. In fact, it is, for me, one of the clear highlights of the album. (The Bach Chaconne certainly didn't lack for transcriptions for other instruments as well, with Ferrucio Busoni's transcription for piano being perhaps the most famous. But I must say that I like this Messerer transcription for organ.)
A work that I thought couldn't work as an organ transcription (Mozart's Adagio & Fugue in C minor, K. 548) actually is a surprise success in a transcription by Guillou. And Liszt's "Pilgrims' Chorus" transcription is sensitively done, without the slightest bombast that one might expect.
Somewhat less successful is Busser's transcription of Berlioz's Marche hongroise (Rákóczy March) from "La Damnation de Faust." I think it demands the orchestral color and percussion that Berlioz had scored for the work, and loses a bit in the translation.
The famous Rachmaninoff Prelude (op. 3 no. 2) receives an interesting transcription by Vierne, one that brings out the darkness in the work that can evade a pianist. In fact, it is almost, in this transcription, lugubrious by comparison. But the transcription is splendidly voiced, and shows off the coloration possibilities - and the 32' stops - of this remarkable organ.
A total surprise, and probably my favorite track second only to the Bach Chaconne, is a transcription by Guillou of Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Toccata, op. 11. Perhaps the technical tour de force of the entire album, it is ghostly yet with incredibly fleet passage work, requiring virtuosic finger (and foot) work.
Olivier Latry, the Notre-Dame organist, handles all the challenges (hands, feet, stops) thrown at him with aplomb and plays with what can only be described as stylistic accuracy. He is, in a phrase, one fine organist. And he has the benefit of one of the world's finest organs, and some of the best recorded sound I've ever heard.
One last, if minor, point. This is my very first hybrid SACD from Universal (Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, Decca), and I notice that the jewel box, while no bigger than standard jewel boxes, seems to be more robustly made and much less prone to breakage where the front-cover hinge pins engage the CD carrier. I hope that this is the beginning of a positive trend; two decades worth of busted jewel boxes is more than any mere mortal need bear.
Bob Zeidler
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Location: Charlton, MA United States

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