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This outstanding piece of work by Fugue State Films must be one of the most significant documentary contributions ever to have been undertaken for the pipe organ – certainly in terms of film and recordings. It is a hugely important project and one which sets the tempo for any further forays into this field.

This publication comes as a five-disc pack: two CDs and three DVDs in English and French, with subtitles in three languages; there’s also an 80-page full-colour booklet containing organ speci- fications and photos. Technical details include 16:9 widescreen with region-free NTSC DVD – and it will play anywhere in the world. I could not sample its DTS Digital Surround 96/24™ 2.0 / 4.0 / 5.1 (with 96KHZ 24-bit playback on compatible equipment) as I don’t have this facility – nor do I know anyone who has; suffice it to say that it is compatible with all DTS equipment for 48KHZ playback. Ordinary mortals such as myself have to accept the sound in Dolby Digital Surround 2.0 – and that is simply superb. The Saint-Denis organ comes over particularly well and reminds us that it must have shocked as well as inspired listeners in 1840. The music was recorded by award-winning engineer David Hinitt; the entire work has been done in association with the Organ Historical Society.

Even listing the participants reads like an organo-Biblical epic: there are contributions, both oral and musical, from Michel Bouvard, Jean-Pierre Griveau, Olivier Latry, Kurt Lueders, Thomas Monnet, David Noël-Hudson, Pierre Pincemaille, Daniel Roth and Carolyn Shuster-Fournier. Of the main narrators, Ronald Ebrecht and Kurt Lueders loom large; chief among them is our very own Francophile Gerard Brooks, who acts as continuity announcer and is one of the principal performers.

The list of organs played is equally impressive; some are obvious choices to illustrate the work of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, others are not. The selection of instruments is not only a chronological progression, but is extremely well thought out: Basilique-Cathédrale de Saint-Denis (1840), Saint-Louis, Bédarieux (1843), Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d’Orléans, orgue de chœur (1846), Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saint-Omer (1855), Saint-Louis d’Antin, Paris (1858), Saint-Sulpice, Paris (1862), Saint-Maurice de Bécon, Courbevoie (1865), Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris (1868), Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Long-sur-Somme (1877), Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d’Orléans, grand-orgue (1880), Saint-Étienne, Elbeuf, orgue de chœur (1882), Basilique Saint-Sernin, Toulouse (1889), Saint-Ouen, Rouen (1890), Saint-Rémy, Selongey (1893), and Saint-Antoine des Quinze-Vingts, Paris (1894).

The list of music performed is too lengthy to reproduce here, but suffice it to say that there is repertoire which is wholly appropriate to the instruments, and some which is less so – not that it matters, because the wealth of material is so great there’s more than a lifetime’s listening and watching to be had: eight hours of film and two hours of performances. Items which grabbed my attention unexpectedly were a bold improvisation by Pierre Pincemaille and a charmingly simple one by Daniel Roth.

The narrative traces Cavaillé-Coll’s origins back to the organ-building work of his father. The first film covers the early period and there’s a fascinating demonstration of a Poïkilorgue (designed for salons and theatres), as well as an historical overview of Paris which sets the scene for industrialisation, developing wealth, consequent social, cultural and civic growth under Napoleon III – as well as the spectre of political unrest. Any technical developments are mapped in some detail: the change in wind systems from cuneiform to double-rise reservoirs, differential wind pressures, ventils, Barker’s pneumatic lever, and a comparative analysis of John Abbey’s work at the Saint-Denis monastery. Relationships between Doublaine & Callinet, Ducroquet and Merklin are all scrutinised. Carolyn Shuster-Fournier emerges as a most interesting musicologist, with a fascinating insight into the world of the salon and how social events ‘at home’ with a house organ were an essential ingredient of Parisian cultural life.

The relationships between organ builder, Lefébure-Wély and Lemmens (the more classy of the two musicians, and a student of Hesse) are probed and a demonstration of the effet d’orage is given. The importance of Franck’s developing interest in organ composition is examined; the watershed organ at Saint-Omer (1855) is used to explore the move away from classical choruses to a new orchestral concept of a tutti, as well as the importance of the hautbois in binding the fonds together into a symphonic mezzo- forte ensemble. The much altered organ at Saint-Clothilde is wisely avoided and the multifarious changes to the organ at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame are explained.

In the third film (covering the period 1862-99) the influence of Wagner is explored through the wealthy patrons who commissioned organs from Cavaillé-Coll, with the resulting developments of two expressive manual divisions (or, on occasion, total enclosure) and use of pédales à bascule. The trail leads to the substantial organ built for Baron de l’Espée for his house near Biarritz, but the pilgrimage goes cold on the steps of the Sacré-Cœur (where his organ was later installed) and we never get to hear or see the instrument. This omission and the failure to include the great instrument in Lyon must be seen as shortcomings in such a comprehensive documentary.

The effects of the 1871 siege of Paris on Cavaillé-Coll’s business were keenly felt; the organ builders barricaded the factory in Avenue du Maine, and Aristide had to offer accommodation and stabling to troops and their horses. There is too much on the unrealised project for Rome; a project which never happened surely can’t have had such a great impact on organ culture – editorial control might have been tighter here. In the 1880s Cavaillé-Coll went bankrupt and his son subsequently formed a rival company, from whom Widor commissioned his house organ; these must have been bitter times and the sense of this family fracture comes across clearly.

The second DVD is a tour through the organs, including interesting discussions of the developing influence of Germanic progressive mixtures and Cavaillé-Coll’s gradual abandoning of these (under the influence of Guilmant, Gigout and others) in favour of more classical repeating mixtures, which, like Clicquot’s, break on F. There is some absolutely delightful and artistic filming; the camera roams while the towering architectural choruses of organs such as Saint-Ouen and Saint-Sernin are blazing forth – the combination of the visual and the tonal is certainly inspiring stuff. Some visits are unfortunately confined to the console. I think the film is at its best where Kurt Lueders introduces the viewer to the inside of a Cavaillé-Coll organ. At Orléans we find the two organs are classified monuments (have we got there in the UK yet?) where unfortunate pitch alterations to the main organ have recently been reversed, to restore the pitch back to a = 435Hz. We get the sheer scale of the Récit shutter fronts and a sense of how the organ builder moved from a tonal orientation around the classi- cal choruses of his early career to the German inspired Volleswerk of Walcker and the Full Swell of Hill and others. In organs such as Saint-Louis d’Antin (1858) we see these two elements combined into an instrument which can produce a Grand jeu as well as the blazing ensembles we associate with his later work.

There’s a guided tour of Widor’s registrations for his Toccata, explained in detail by Michel Bouvard at Saint-Sernin. Against this there is the occasional repetition of material: we get a discussion of the Orléans Pedal 10 quint-reed twice, almost in succession, and the question of mixtures perhaps repeats once too often. These items might be at the expense of a deeper exploration of the origin of reversed consoles and harmonic stops (Gabler, Holzhey, etc.), or the influence of the German tutti, Walcker’s 100-stop organ at Ulm and the introduction of balanced Swell pedals, or what came out of Cavaillé-Coll’s visits to England.

Several stars emerge: Kurt Lueders’s knowledge and understand- ing of matters technical and musical seems unsurpassed; David Noël-Hudson’s explanation of tonal structures appealed to me; Carolyn Shuster-Fournier brought an important cross-curricular breadth of knowledge to the project; Gerard Brooks provides a continuity which is essential in such a detailed narrative, plus he gives excellent performances of pivotal pieces of repertoire such as Boëly’s Fantasia on Judex Crederis.

There is literally hours of enjoyment to be had here; it’s a must for any serious organist.

WILLIAM MCVICkER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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