Wall Street Journal Review - Six Symphonies in the French Romantic Style

Wall Street Journal Review - Six Symphonies in the French Romantic Style

By Barbara Jepson
The Wall Street Journal
4 July 2012

Louis Vierne's six symphonies for solo organ, which epitomize the French Romantic style in their tonal colors and dramatic sweep, traverse the turbulent inner landscape of their creator. Best known as the principal organist of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris from 1900 to 1937, his life was a saga of triumph, loss and betrayal.

Visually impaired from birth, Vierne nonetheless developed a formidable technique, which gradually deteriorated because of numerous health problems. His elder son and brother were killed during World War I. His youngest son died of tuberculosis. His wife had an affair with one of his friends. And his superiors at the Paris Conservatoire twice declined to grant him a professorship. He died at age 66 from a heart attack or stroke during a recital at Notre Dame, sounding a low E on the pedals as he collapsed.

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of Vierne's death, Christopher Houlihan, a rising young American organist, has embarked on a six-city recital tour devoted to the organ symphonies. On July 6 and 7, he will play them at the University of Chicago's Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on the renovated, early 20th-century E.M. Skinner Organ. The tour began here last month with dazzling performances at the Church of the Ascension in Greenwich Village. Future recitals are scheduled for Los Angeles on July 19 and 20, Montreal on Aug. 3 and 4, and Dallas on Aug. 18.In 1863, César Franck wrote the first French Romantic organ piece with symphonic proportions. He was influenced, like so many, by Beethoven's visionary Ninth Symphony, which vastly expanded notions of symphonic form. Organs by the inventive French builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, whose powerful instruments provided an orchestral blend of colors, were another significant inspiration for Franck and subsequent contributors to the repertory like Charles-Marie Widor.

Vierne studied with Franck and Widor. His sprawling organ symphonies require a virtuoso's technical prowess, an architect's understanding of structure and a torch singer's ability to convey shifting emotions. At the Church of the Ascension, Mr. Houlihan exhibited all these characteristics. He played the languorous Cantilene of the Third Symphony and the wistful melody of the Fifth's Larghetto with songful expressivity. He captured the ominous undertone of the Fourth's opening prelude, as well as the surging drama of its manic conclusion. And his deft footwork on the pedals throughout the concerts prompted one listener to dub him "the Fred Astaire of the pipe organ."

Mr. Houlihan played all six Vierne pieces in one day—three in the afternoon, three in the evening. Though a bit tedious by the end, this marathon approach readily revealed how Vierne's musical language evolved, from his Widor-influenced Symphony No. 1 to his distinctive later works. While Vierne's musical language remained essentially conservative compared with that of contemporaries like Igor Stravinsky or Claude Debussy, it became increasingly chromatic, utilizing notes outside its stated key scale.

During his tour, Mr. Houlihan is playing Vierne on a range of large pipe organs. They include the American-built Dobson instrument completed in 2003 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles and the updated, Canadian-built Casavant Frères installed in 1901 at L'église du Gesù in Montreal. Chicago's E.M. Skinner instrument was first played in 1928 by the well-known organist Lynnwood Farnam, to whom Vierne dedicated his Sixth Symphony.

The organ at the Church of Ascension was inaugurated last year. Named the Manton Memorial Organ in honor of loyal parishioners, it is the only French-built organ in the city. The instrument was designed by its maker, Pascal Quoirin, to play a wide repertoire, but it includes a number of French Romantic stops, or sets of pipes, making it particularly appropriate for the Vierne. In Mr. Houlihan's hands, the organ delivered plenty of firepower and juicy, well-blended chords, like a homogeneous string section in a fine symphony orchestra.

The Manton is a hybrid with two consoles—one stationary, largely concealed from view, and one movable. Mr. Houlihan played the movable electric-action console, positioned in the center of the chancel at the front of the church, which enabled the audience to watch him play.

The 24-year-old organist grew up in Connecticut. A graduate of Trinity College there, he earned a master's degree last year at the Juilliard School, where he studied with the Grammy Award-winning virtuoso Paul Jacobs. Mr. Houlihan has recorded two discs of French organ music for Towerhill and made a well-received debut at Davies Hall in San Francisco in April.

Having spent a year as an organ assistant in Paris and subsequently played at Notre Dame, Mr. Houlihan is acquainted with the historic pipe organs which informed Vierne's music. His recitals here proved an excellent match between performer and composer, worth hearing by anyone who enjoys virtuosic organ works. Indeed, his expressive music-making made me like Vierne's organ symphonies better than before.

Ms. Jepson writes about classical music for the Journal.