Toulouse les Orgues: 20th International Festival

Toulouse les Orgues: 20th International Festival
“The organ: fabulous musical machine”
7-18 October 2015

The city of Toulouse has nine historic organs on the national protected listed monuments schedule, together with many other instruments in the surrounding Midi-Pyrénéés region. It is something of a pilgrimage site for organ lovers; an appropriate description, as much of its early importance came from the Basilica of St. Sernin and its key position on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route. The Toulouse les Orgues organisation has a year-round responsibility for the maintenance of most of the organs in the city, as well as a thriving educational and outreach remit. In addition, they organise the annual international festival and the occasional International Xavier Darasse Organ Competition. This year was the 20th anniversary of the festival. It’s motto ‘The organ: fabulous musical machine” was reflected in a vast array of musical events and presentations, featuring not just the organ in its various incarnations, but also an impressive breadth of other musical activity.

Wednesday 7 October

It opened in a suitably grand and ambitious style with Biber’s Missa Salisburgensis à 53 voci, performed in Toulouse’s Cathedral Saint-Etienne.  It was an appropriate choice for this anniversary festival, as Biber seems to have written the mass in 1682 to celebrate the 1100th anniversary of the founding of the archbishopric of Salzburg. It was also the 10th anniversary of one of the participants, the children’s choir Les Éclats, who turned out to be WP_20151007_22_10_55_Proone of the delights of the evening. Alongside Les Éclats, were former choristers, the Chœur de jeunes du Conservatoire du Tarn, (making a combined in cappella chorus of some 50 voices) plus the 16 professional singers of Scandicus (who sang the in concerto sections). The instrumental forces were provided by Les Sacqueboutiers and members of Les Passions baroque orchestra of Montauban, the whole conducted with considerable skill by François Terrieux. It is a monumental work, lasting some 40’ minutes plus the concluding motet Plaudite tympana, also written for 53 parts. It scored for two vocal choirs of in concerto soloists and in cappella chorus singers, two string choirs, two trumpet choirs (on this occasion, coupled with same rather inauthentic timpani), a cornet and sackbut choir, a recorder and oboe choir and a continuo group that would originally have included the four organs spaced at each corner of the central space of Salzburg Cathedral, but here represented by a single continuo organ and cello.

Although the in concerto soloists were separated right and left of the central stage, some of the expected antiphonal effects were reduced by having all the remaining performers on one stage (albeit with some attempt at right and left contrast), rather than organising a wider spread and/or using the balcony behind and above the stage. Mounting a work of this scale is a complex logistical organisation, and I doubt that there was much chance of rehearsal in the performance space with all the combined forces. But it was an excellent performance, with WP_20151007_22_20_27_Prosome outstanding singing from the youngsters of Les Éclats, for whom it must have been a memorable and invigorating experience. The evening started with Froberger’s Fantasia supra Ut, Re, Me, Fa, Sol, La played on the Cathedral organ by Michel Bouvard (the former director of Toulouse les Orgues), and pieces by Biber featuring the separate instrumental groups of Les Sacqueboutiers, playing the Sonata Sancti Polycarpi and Les Passions his Battaglia Sonata with its cacophonous depiction of the confusion and pandemonium of war.

Thursday 8 October

The following evening involved a trip to the nearby town of Murat for a concert featured the recently restored mid 19th century organ of St. Jacques Church. The organist Octavian Saunier and the Paris based Chœur Britten (directed by Nicole Corti) demonstrated the organ as a solo an accompanimental role in pieces by Mendelssohn, Bach, Boely, Schubert, Ropartz, Poulenc and Bonnal. The organ compositions featured music written before and well after the date of the organ, rather than of the period of the organ itself, but seemed to work reasonably well, not least as the specification, if not the souWP_20151008_20_21_02_Prond, of one manual of the organ has its roots in the earlier French organ. The other is distinctly romantic in tone, as demonstrated in Guy Ropartz’ Méditation. The 8 female singers of the Chœur Britten collectively had rather too much vibrato for my taste (and, occasionally, for matters of intonation), but this was less of an issue in some of the solo moments. I was a bit surprised that the two contrasting Bach pieces were sung with the same intensity and volume. The Litanies à la veirge noire by Francis Poulenc was one of the most effective pieces , with its evocative harmonies. I also like the two encores, particularly the ethereal second one which I gather was by Maurice Ohana, sung in the round.

Friday 10 October

The following day saw the first of several lunchtime concerts, this one devoted to music by Sweelinck and pieces from Italy, Spain, Germany and England affiliated with Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, given by Sébastien Wonner on chamber organ and harpsichord (St Anne Chapel). The other composers included Claudio Merulo, Antonio de Cabezon, Peter Philips, Samuel Scheidt (Sweelinck’s pupil) and John Bull, ending with the latter’s memorial to Sweelinck, the Fantasia op de Fuga van M: Jan Pietersn. Switching from organ to harpsichord worked well, and the continuo organ was more effective than many of that ilk are. It included a Regal stop which we heard in one of the anonymous opening pieces, dating from around 1520.

The evening concert was one of a number of particularly adventurous programmes during the Toulouse les Orgues festival, given by singer-songwriter François Maurin (aka FM) WP_20151009_21_34_23_Proand his extraordinary show as “The Organ King!” (in the concert hall created in the shell of the former church of Saint-Pierre des Cuisines). Featuring an extraordinary range of mechanically operated, but otherwise real instruments (ranging from a piano, marimba and drum kit to various bells and whistles) gathered around a fairground pipe organ (and with one other live musician, a double bass player), the whole imaginatively lit and controlled by a trio of laptops and a mixing desk, this was a feast for the eyes and the ears. Although the music would be considered pretty mainstream by the standards of the thousands of students gathered in and outside Toulouse’s many bars, it was an entertaining journey through a wide variety of musical styles. It was no surprise that most of the audience gathered around the stage at the end of the concert for François Maurin’s patient description of how everything worked.

Saturday 10 October

One of the festivals’ use of instruments other than the organ came in the late morning concert in the Church of Gesu (the administrative base of Toulouse les Orgue) and the programme ‘The organ of the angels’ which featured an instrument that had been banned by police decree in 1835 on the grounds that its sounds cause premature birth and arouse madness – WP_20151010_10_43_08_Prothe Glass Harmonica, an instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761. Notwithstanding police concerns, Paganini praised it as an “orgue angélique“, Marie Antoinette played it and Mozart, Beethoven, and CPE Bach composed for it. The performer, Thomas Bloch, demonstrated some very thorough hand-washing and a huge variety of musical forms, varying from several composed shortly after its invention to pieces by present day composers, including himself, some using electronics and pre-recordings, notably Bloch’s ‘Christ Hall’, derived from the word ‘crystal’ and influenced by stained glass windows. Four rather nervous students from the local Conservatoire joined in some of the pieces, playing flute, oboe, viola, and cello. It seems they have not yet had lessons in stage etiquette, with one sitting down as soon as he arrived on stage, despite applause and everybody else standing – and another who stood with his hands in his pockets.

The mid-afternoon concert (in the Hôtel-Dieu Saint-Jacques) had the title The Echoes of pipes (Les Échos des Tuyaux) and compared the sound of the organ (a return by Sébastien Wonner) with that of the recorder consort – the very impressive Consort Brouillamini who formed while studying at Lyon Conservatory. Of course, both organ and recorders have similar means of tone production, and many organ pieces from the Renaissance and early Baroque period are written in strict polyphonic parts, making performance on a consort of other instruments not only possible, but actively encouraged by composers of the time. The well balanced programme contrasted organ and recorder pieces from groups of composers from Italy (A & G Gabrieli, Palestrina), Spain (Hernando de Cabezón), France (Descaudin), and England, with a focus on the latter country (Anthony Holborne, John Adson, John Coprario, William Byrd and John Dowland). Consort Brouillamini had a very convincing and professional stage presence, changing positions (and frequently, instruments) between pieces. Their showpiece came in the only piece that combined organ and recorders, William Byrds Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, where Byrd indicates that the plainsong breves should be played by a second person – on this occasion (and during the encore repeat) all five recorder players took it in turns to play as they moved around the room. Very effective.

WP_20151010_20_16_32_ProThe evening concert took place in the Basilica of Saint-Sernin and was one of the most adventurous events of the festival. It was in two distinct parts, starting with a programme of minimalist music for organ performed by Berry van Berkum with some pieces including the saxophone of Niels Bijl, the whole accompanied by an extraordinary light show (described as ‘video mapping’) created by Xano Martinez of Le Proyectarium, specially created to blend with the architectural details of Saint-Sernin and respond to the individual pieces. All the seats were moved so that the audience faced the west-end organ, the patterns of light extending throughout the building with some remarkable images. The music included pieces by Graham Fitkin, Philip Glass, Willem Tanke, Jan Welmers, Arvo Pärt, played on the famous Saint-Sernin organ, one of the finest French 19th century symphonic organs around, built by Cavaillé-Coll (1889) inside the case of an earlier organ from 1674.

The second part of the concert was an extraordinary fusion of the sound of the pipe organ and the WP_20151010_22_48_54_Proswirling electronics and hypnotically thumping beat of the  “Eat, sleep, rave, repeat” culture, performed by Plapla Pinky (the French electronic music duo of Maxime Denuc and Raphaël Hénard) and the Belgian organist Cindy Castillo. They performed Plapla Pinky’s  “Raver Stay With Me. Plapla Pinky have described this work as representing the parallels between the early morning remnants of the all-night rave and the church Mass. Ideally they would perform it in a church on a Sunday morning so that ravers could come to end their night lost in a deep harmonic and emotional experience. (paraphrased from an interview to be found here). Between them, the performers produced an amazing array of sounds, both from the organ itself and  emanating from loudspeakers placed around the church, controlled from a complex looking mixing desk in the centre of the church nave. The Plapla Pinky duo bopped and rocked away as they blended and mixed the sound of the live organ with the distinctive thump-thump rhythms of rave music. It was sometimes difficult to tell whether the music was coming from the organ playing of Cindy Castillo (pictured in rehearsal), or from the mixing desk synthesizer. Her ‘score’ consisted of a tiny set of written notes, with registrations and timings, alongside a mobile phone timer and withWP_20151010_13_54_01_Pro headphones to coordinate with the Plapla Pinky duo in the nave. Much of the live organ music was based on snippets of real pieces, including a tiny bit of Bach figuration (that I wouldn’t have recognised had I not been told about it beforehand) that was repeated over and over again. It was an extraordinary aural occasion, although clearly not to the taste of everybody – although during a rehearsal earlier in the day, I had seen a young girl gyrating wildly to herself in the central aisle in what I took to be a typical rave dance routine. I deliberately sat close to Plapla Pinky’s mixing desk on the assumption that the sound balance would be most effective there. Given that this was an organ festival, featuring one of the most famous organs around, it was a shame that the sound of the live organ wasn’t given more prominence. It was barely audible for much of the time, beneath the aural battering of the ravers.

Sunday 11 October

The Sunday lunchtime concert, Concert-Aubade, was given in Saint-Etienne Cathedral after a very late-running Mass. The mixed programme started with Saori Sato playing Liszt’s monumental organ work Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen on the cathedral organ, WP_20151011_12_22_49_Pro_cropsuspended high up on the wall in a ‘swallows-nest’ position (the photo shows Saori Sato on the rather scary walk across the top of the arches to reach the organ console). This was followed by the amateur singers of Ensemble In Nomine singing the extract from the Bach cantata upon which Liszt based his piece, with its distinctive descending bass-line. One oddity that might have seemed a good idea in rehearsal, but really didn’t work in concert, was to have the choir (singing from the opposite end of the building) join in one verse of the choral that concludes Liszt’s 14 minute piece. The conductor was beating a whole beat behind the sound of the organ, with the choir joining in just a little later than the beat – it sounded a mess. The choir followed this with extracts from Charpentier’s Messe des morts, accompanied by a small continuo group. There were some good young sopranos in the choir, and they all seemed to grow in confidence as the concert progressed.

The Sunday afternoon recital saw another trip out of the city, this time to the attractive little town (and church) of Saint-Félix-Lauragais for a concert of music of the French Grand Siècle given by Mathilde Vialle, viola da gamba and Jean-Miguel Aristizabal, organ and WP_20151011_15_48_56_Proharpsichord. Each half opened with a organ solo, played on the 1781 organ built by Grégoire Rabiny. Jean-Miguel Aristizabal caught the moods well of the different variations in the transcription by Jean-Henri d’Anglebert of a Passacaillie from Lully’s Armide, although his second half organ solo, a Clerambault Suite was rather rushed. The highlight of the afternoon was the viola da gamba playing of Mathilde Vialle. She has the key ability to stay in tune well above the frets, and to incorporate ornaments naturally and unobtrusively into the flow of the music, rather than as an obvious add-on. She played the Folies d’Espagne and the Suite en la mineur from the 3ème livre by Marias, the latter Suite being particularly impressive, not least for the spectacular concluding Grand Ballet. In the second half of the concert she played three solo movements by De Machy, her beautifully exploratory reading of the Prélude being a highlight. Jean-Miguel Aristizabal’s continuo playing on the harpsichord was excellent, unobtrusive and sensitive. The test of a good continuo player is that you should not notice that they are there, but would certainly notice if the stopped.

The Sunday evening concert was the Bach Art of Fugue, performed in the Musée des Augustins, a converted monastery. It started in the old church, with its 1981 North German style Ahrend organ, before moving to the Salon Rouge. The bulk of the music was played on the Ahrend organ by Jan Willem Jansen, one of the founders of the festival. There was a very strange start to the concert, when Jansen started speaking to the rear half of the audience in a voice that was too quiet to hear for most of them, and was inaudible for anybody sitting in the front half of the audience. This went on for about 20 minutes and caused quite a stir. An attempt to address the front half of the audience was short-lived. Eventually, some 25 minutes, the music started.

WP_20151011_17_52_03_ProJan Willem Jansen played the long first part (which included 10 of the 14 fugues and the four canons) with a meticulously methodical sense of touch and articulation, avoiding any sense of giving individual contrapuntal lines a sense of identity. The key to keeping the momentum and interest going during a very long recital came in his choice of registrations. The first two movements (Contrapunctus I and IV) were played on simple 8’ and 4’ Principal stops which, because of the voicing of such stops, meant that the upper voice predominated while the lower three voices were quieter and rather muffled. This is a characteristic of Baroque and Renaissance organs, and is one of the reasons why German fugues are often played on reed or reedy-sounding mutation stops – as, indeed, are French fugues. Jansen must have subconsciously become aware of my scribbled notes because, from then on, most of the fugues were, indeed, played on reed stops. He left the final Fuge a 3 Soggeti in the incomplete state of the surviving manuscript but, rather than leaving the single concluding line hanging in the air, added the chorale prelude Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein that was added (under the title Vor deinen Thron), apparently as WP_20151011_18_17_58_Prorecompense for the incomplete final fugue for the posthumous publication. A little girl sitting just in front of me fell asleep after the first fugue, waking at the 5th. I am not convinced that the Art of Fugue was entirely to her taste. She left after fugue 9.

After a short break, we all moved to the sumptuous Salon Rouge where we were greeted by an plethora of paintings of naked women. There we heard the two Mirror Fugues (together with their inversions), played on two harpsichords by Jan Willem Jansen and Ikuyo Mikami. Then came four viola da gamba players, including the excellent Mathilde Vialle who I had heard earlier that afternoon, who was stepping in a short notice. They repeated four of the fugues we had already heard, finishing with the unfinished Fuge a 3 Soggeti, ending just as it should, with its single line left hanging. The inclusion of the harpsichord in the first two Fugues (Contrapunctus I and III) was unfortunate as the difference of sound and attack made it is very poor accompaniment – the reason why it is the WP_20151011_20_50_15_Proorgan rather than harpsichord that is usually associated with viol consorts. And there was no need to duplicate all the fugal lines in any case. Despite the obvious technical and stamina difficulties of playing nearly all the Art of Fugue on the organ, I have to admit that I much preferred the last two pieces, played on the unaccompanied consort of four violas da gamba. A beautiful sound, well played, and with the tonal ability to make all four fugal lines absolutely clear. The other three gamba players were Louise Bouedo, Barbara Hünninger Agnes Boissonnot-Guibault, all students at the Conservatory of Lyon.

Monday 12 October

The Monday lunchtime concert, and my last, was back again in the Musée des Augustins and the Ahrend North German organ. But this time, it was not alone, as the recital Orgue WP_20151012_13_24_21_ProAugmenté given by Hampus Lindwall was for Organ and iPad (other brands of tablet computer are available). While Lindwall improvised five separate movements on the organ, his iPad picked up the sound of the organ from microphones placed very close to the front of the pipes and tweeked the sound in an extraordinary array of manners, adding pitch swoops, phase shifts, switches between the left and right hand loudspeakers (sited on the organ gallery). As with Cindy Castello’s playing on Saturday evening, it was not always clear what was live organ music, and what was coming via the iPad and speakers. It would have been helpful to have had a video screen so that we could see what was actually being played on the organ. At one stage what I thought was a particularly growly sound turned out to be the motorbike passing outside. It was also unclear who was operating the iPad, assuming somebody was. Nobody acknowledged the applause apart from Hampus Lindwall which, if there was somebody else operating the electronic sound, was a bit of a breach of normal stage etiquette. The WP_20151012_13_27_46_Proimprovisation itself was very modern in style, albeit ending with a more-or-less traditional French Toccata with a thundering pedal reed theme below rapid manual passagework. Much use was made of tone clusters and jagged percussive sounds. Each of the five sections had a broadly similar structural and volume, with no sense of them being part of a larger suite with contrasting movements. The whole thing started with what has become a rather traditional start to modern organ pieces, by turning the blower of the organ on while some stops were (perhaps only partially) drawn, resulting in a wonderful squeal as the pipes slowly start to be blown into full speech.

Monday also saw a Round Table discussion on the topic of What is your dream organ for tomorrow? Five organists and two organ builders (unfortunately, all that was left of the original bill of eight organists and five organ builders) attempted to answer such questions as “Which instrument for which uses and what music?” After the technological advances of the 19th century and the 20th resurgence of interest in historic instruments, we are now in the age of robots and microphones, synthesised sound, digital sampling and algorithms. One speaker saw the Italian symphonic organ as the key to the future, another showed slides of contemporary organ cases. One of the more interesting talks described the reconstruction of an existing organ in St. Peter in Cologne into an instrument specifically designed for contemporary music and influenced by the views of Ligeti as far back as 1968. It includes several of the percussive elements of the cinema organ, and relying on complex electronics that lost the benefits of mechanical action. Another speaker spoke of the interaction between the organ and digital technology.

PS. (Feb 2016)
A transcript of the Round Table discussion has now been posted on the Toulouse les Orgues website: http://www.toulouse-les-orgues.org/. The English version can be found here.
Extracts from some of the concerts can be found here.
Photos here.
A video with snippets of concerts can be found here, although the music that you hear is not always related to the visual images.

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