The Marian masterpiece dedicated to a car manufacturer

Claude Johnson at the wheel of a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost in 1907 (Getty)

Prières pour Notre Dame: Music for organ and upper voices by Dupré, Boulanger, Demessieux, Poulenc 
Dir George Richford

There can’t be many car manufacturers who have added notably to the Catholic liturgy – or indeed any liturgy. But there is Claude Johnson, who described himself as the hyphen in Rolls-Royce. By 1910, Johnson was running the company after the death of the two founders. And he was the dedicatee of Marcel Dupré’s 15 versets pour les vêpres du commun des fêtes de la Sainte Vierge. This was initially in alternatim form: the treble line of chant alternated with Dupré himself improvising on the vast organ of Notre-Dame de Paris for the feast of the Assumption on August 15, 1919.  

It might well be that gratitude for the end of the First World War energises this work. Whatever the case, Johnson paid for Dupré to transcribe what he had played originally. And the result has, most recently, been recorded on the organ of St-Ouen, Rouen, perhaps the most celebrated of all the achievements of organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, with an English team, including the senior girls of Romsey Abbey. 

It would probably be hard to record anything bad with the St-Ouen instrument, though clearly, as the liner notes tell us, the instrument – unchanged since Widor inaugurated it in 1890–needs a lot of nursing to keep it going. It still sounds magnificent. If the most important stop on an organ is marked “The Acoustic”, then St-Ouen is remarkably advantaged. And Colin Walsh – who has devoted his career primarily to the performance of French Romantic and French 20th-century music – recreates these liturgical improvisations with authority. The recording is like a rumble strip in the road: slow down and pay attention.  

George Richford brings the senior girls from Romsey Abbey – one of Britain’s most impressive ancient churches, whose pre-Reformation choir was composed of nuns – to sing the Vespers, as well as, among other pieces, Poulenc’s devastating Litanies à la Vierge noire.  

There are some remarkable girls’ choirs now across the UK – Sarah MacDonald’s at Ely Cathedral, Helen Smee’s at Christ Church, Oxford, Anna Lapwood’s at Pembroke College, Cambridge, to name but three. The sound of this Romsey choir, across the range, is impressively good. It is mature, finessed and – in the Poulenc – in a kind of compelling sacred combat, or perhaps danse d’amour, with the power of Cavaillé-Coll’s masterpiece. There is something peculiarly affecting in this, as if somehow the light has been turned on. 

There are some organ solos –  two movements from Jeanne Demessieux’s 12 Choral Preludes  on Gregorian Chants. Demessieux (1921-1968) was, as it happens, a pupil of Dupré. The two exquisite pieces here – on the Rorate caeli and Attende domine – are perfect counterparts to the voiced devotional intensity of the other pieces.  

A delight.   

Francis O’Gorman was organ scholar of his college in Oxford and remains an active musician. He is Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh and tweets at @francis_ogorman