Charles Toumemire - His Complete Recordings on CD at Last

By Matthew-Walker, Robert | Musical Opinion, February-April 2009 | Go to article overview

Charles Toumemire - His Complete Recordings on CD at Last


Matthew-Walker, Robert, Musical Opinion


Robert Matthew -Walker reviews this important release alongside a new recording of Tournemire's works.

Every serious organist will give thanks that the complete known recordings of Charles Toumemire have at last been collected on to one CD. It is impossible to praise the incentive behind this issue on the Arbiter label, based in New York State, too highly, and in terms of historical significance this record is the answer to many an organist's prayer. The original Polydor 78rpm discs are exceptionally rare; frankly, they never come up for sale. Tournemire did not record for any other label, nor are there any known off-air recordings from Radio France or the BBC, for which organisations he did broadcast occasionally in the 1930s. For the benefit of those music -lovers who are not enthusiasts for the organ it maybe as well to state why these recordings are so sought-after and why they are so important.

In the first place, Charles Toumemire (1870-1939) was a very great organist, both as a musician and as an executant. For an organist, more than with any other instrument, these two facets combine in a third field, the art of improvisation, in which he was renowned throughout the organ world as an absolute master. At the age of 16, Tournemire became one of the youngest pupils of César Franck at the Paris Conserv- atoire, who thought very highly of him - so much so, in fact, that the major work of Franck's on this rec- ord, the third Choral in A minor, was first heard in a version for piano duet, at which premiere Toumemire partnered the comp- oser (playing the pedal part on the lower end of the piano keyboard, probably in octaves). César Franck died in 1890, and - in the absence of recordings by him - the original discs by Tournemire of his master's music are the closest we are ever likely to get in terms of authenticity. In the second place, Toumemire was a very important composer for the instrument himself; his music is technically very demanding (perhaps he was influenced in this regard by Charles-Marie Widor, who succeeded Franck as his professor at the Conservatoire) and is therefore not often heard in recital. Thirdly, these recordings (all of them, including those of his own music) were made in 1930-31 on the Cavaillé-Coll organ at the church of Sainte Clotilde in Paris - the same instrument for which Franck composed the music, and on which it was first heard. Apart from the aforementioned third Choral, it is surely not too fanciful to say that Tournemire would have heard Franck play all of his own organ music on this very instrument, and that the composer's registrations would have been indelibly impressed upon the younger man.

The importance of the organ captured on these recordings is two-fold; the first important point we already know about, but the second is that the instrument was substantially rebuilt soon after these recordings were made, and the original sound that Franck (and Tournemire, of course, amongst many others) knew, disappeared forever. These recordings, therefore, capture the sound of the original 1859 instrument, the acoustic and the ambiance of the church, with which Franck and his disciples would have been totally familiar, and which would have been in the composer's inner ear when committing this music to paper.

I trust I have been able to convey the more important reasons as to why these recordings are so important. Their great scarcity in the contemporary market-place sets a very high price on them, and to have all of them on one CD is therefore a major event. Curiously, there is one missing matrix 10" number, but we must assume this side was rejected for technical reasons - whatever it was Toumemire recorded on it remains unknown. The Franck Pastorale is the rarest of all - so rare, in fact, that it did not make it into either the Gramophone Shop Encyclopedia of 1936 or thereafter into WERM, but it was a commercially -issued Polydor disc.

The performances are, simply, magnificent - especially that of the Choral.

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