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More than a generation after his death, Pierre Cochereau remains an organist about whom opinion is divided and strong. Those present when his comet blazed across the sky speak in hagiographic tones of his legendary improvisations at Notre-Dame de Paris from 1955 to 1984 and on countless tours abroad. Those who focus on his idiosyncratic recordings of repertoire – interpretations Hammond aptly dubs ‘annoyingly persuasive’ – tend to ask what all the fuss was about, particularly lamenting the chronic tinkering Cochereau sanctioned at Notre Dame that left its Cavaillé-Coll famously louder than a Concorde taking off. Teacher of only a few private students, loath to submit to the discipline of setting music down on paper, Cochereau’s legacy rests largely upon a group of disciples who assimilated his procedures and undertook the arduous task of transcribing his improvisations. All have reason to be grateful to Anthony Hammond for this clear-eyed, impartial assessment of a contradictory figure, by far the most thorough in any language, meticulously documented and exceptionally well balanced.

Certainly there was much about Cochereau’s music-making to admire: a dazzling technique at the service of a fertile imagination, the strict formal discipline gleaned from Dupré leavened by a harmonic language simultaneously sophisticated and populist, a highly personal synthesis of Franck, Tournemire and Duruflé with dashes of Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen and jazz. First encountering a pipe organ the same day Louis Vierne died, Cochereau considered himself preordained to succeed him at Notre Dame; yet his failure to provide a home address upon applying for the position caused his letter of appointment to lie unanswered for three weeks. In his day many considered him the world’s greatest organist, an opinion with which he no doubt would have concurred. Yet his exhausting concert schedule coupled with administrative duties as the head of several conservatoires in succession left little time for practice – hence his increasing reliance upon the spontaneous act of creation, along with alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs.

Hammond provides valuable new insights into Dupré’s teaching methods and a lucid account of the undocumented changes Cochereau wrought upon the Notre-Dame organ in his attempts to make it a ‘universal’ instrument. Here and there this chronicle retains evidence of its origins as a doctoral dissertation, most notably in the exhaustive analyses of Cochereau’s improvisational genres, best read with YouTube footage of the actual performances close at hand. All told, ‘chapeaux’ off to the organist of Cirencester Parish Church for an engaging and welcome biography.

ROSS WOOD Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Choir & Organ, 2013 - ©Rhinegold Publishing