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Organ Works by Dupré, Langlais, Vierne, Litaize, Messiaen and Ropartz
Jean LANGLAIS (1907-1991)

Suite Brève (1947)
Incantation pour un jour Saint (1949)
Evocation (1964)
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)

Offrande au Saint Sacrement (date unknown)
Gaston LITAIZE (1909-1991)

Scherzo (1932);
Lied (1934)
Epiphanie (date unknown)
Guy ROPARTZ (1864-1955)

Prélude funèbre (1896)
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937)

Trois improvisations (1928)
Marcel DUPRÉ (1886-1971)

Evocation (1941)
Colin Walsh, organist
The Organ of Lincoln Cathedral
Recorded: Lincoln Cathedral, 1-4th September 2003
GUILD GMCD 7278 [77.22]

This is an excellent introduction to French organ music from the late nineteenth century until the 1960s. It serves as a compendium of styles associated with some of the greatest names in organ literature. And, interestingly, there are excellent, personal connections between all the composers on this disc. This tends to give a sense of unity and purpose that is perhaps unusual in this kind of recital.

Musicologists will no doubt argue with different shades of opinion about who is the father of French Organ music. However, I imagine most would probably agree that it was César Franck. There may well be a minority report for some lesser name. If we look at the composers on this disc we see the line succession well in place. Both Guy Ropartz and Louis Vierne were pupils of the Great Old Man. Ropartz was a bit of a dead-end as far as the organ world is concerned. He is the only composer here who was not a professional organist. But that does not belittle his contribution to this disc. However Vierne himself taught Marcel Dupré, who was in fact his protégé. Furthermore, from the teaching of Dupré, the composers Gaston Litaize, Jean Langlais and Olivier Messiaen all derived their technique. Another strange connection is the fact that Vierne, Litaize and Langlais were all blind.

The first work, chronologically at least, is the beautiful Prélude funèbre (1896) by Guy Ropartz. This is an extremely well constructed composition that has a particularly beautiful principal tune. I felt that this work's only problem is its title: remove the word 'funèbre' and I imagine its popularity will increase. To me it is reflective about life rather than death. Of course Ropartz is in his element in writing orchestral music; his symphonies are a great, but undervalued contribution to the literature.

The Three Improvisations by Louis Vierne are interesting in so far as they come to us by a slightly devious manner. In 1928 the microphones were installed in Notre-Dame where the composer made a recording of some Bach and the present improvisations. We have to thank Maurice Duruflé for transcribing them and ensuring publication in 1954. The Marche Episcopale, Méditation and Cortège are all about three minutes long. This was to ensure they would fit on a 78rpm disc! Perhaps they are not Vierne at his very best - but are welcome and valued works in his canon.

Olivier Messiaen is represented by the magical Offrande au Saint Sacrement. This work was found in his papers after his death in 1992: it was finally published in 2001. Langlais believed that it dates from around the time of the Le Banquet Céleste (1928) and had been part of a larger orchestral work duly transcribed for organ. It is one of the loveliest of this composer's works and would serve as a perfect introduction to his music. There is nothing here that is difficult; there are no birds or ragas.

Jean Langlais' impressive Incantation pour un jour Saint (1949) is based on Gregorian Chant. It has words from the Easter Vigil from the Tridentine Mass for its inspiration with the words chanted by the priest and congregation - 'Lumen Christi - Deo Gratias' (Light of Christ - Thanks be to God). This liturgical theme is repeated twice - each time a semitone raised. Langlais uses this at the start and end of this work. The development introduces a variety of styles of music including dance rhythms. Altogether quite a war-horse!

The long Evocation (1964) comes from Jean Langlais' suite - Homage à Rameau. This composition was commissioned by the French Minister of Fine Arts in celebration of 200 years since the death of the old master. This is an impressive work that stretches the skill of the soloist and the effectiveness of the instrument. There are a number of contrasting sections in this work that leads to an impressive toccata and dynamic close.

The Suite Brève dates from 1947. It is in four contrasting movements that derive from earlier material written as incidental music for a radio play. The two outer movements are big gutsy pieces that would make good recessionals for any church service. The two middle movements, a Cantilène and a Plainte are much more profound in their concept. These are intimate pieces which act as a foil to the rumbustious Grands jeux and Dialogue sur les mixtures.

There are three works here by the relatively unknown composer Gaston Litaize. The first is a fine Scherzo (1932) in the direct tradition of Gigout, Widor and Duruflé. The Lied (1934) is a well thought out song without words with an attractive melody, which is repeated with variation three times. The Epiphanie (undated) is a bit of a war-horse which deserves greater recognition. I remember hearing it being played in Notre Dame when the clergy were processing out after mass. It was impressive then and is now. As far as I can see there is no CD dedicated to this composer's music - especially his volume of Douze Pièces (pour orgue).

Marcel Dupré was one of the leading organ composers in the Twentieth Century. He wrote a vast amount of music for this instrument, including concerti. Most of this has thankfully been recorded by Guild and Naxos.

The programme details are perhaps a little misleading in not clearly pointing out that this is the last movement of a much larger 'symphonic' work. 'Evocation' (1941) has three movements, Moderato, Adagio con tenerezza and the present Allegro Deciso. However we are not to be disappointed with this great, powerful 'toccata'. It has everything one could wish for - complexity, virtuosity, and sheer triumphalism. It was written at a time of German occupation and personal sorrow as a result of the composer's father's death. Yet its mood is one of hope.

There can be no faulting of the fine organ at Lincoln Cathedral. This large 'Father' Henry Willis organ was first heard in 1898 with Sir Walter Parratt delivering the opening concert. In 1998, exactly one hundred years to the very day Daniel Roth gave a recital after its major restoration by Harrison & Harrison.

It is a fair sized four-manual organ with sixty-four speaking stops. There is no doubt that it is an instrument that is ideally suited to this selection of demanding works. The string sound is especially subtle.

The cover of the CD has a fine painting by John Wilson Carmichael called 'The Brayford Pool & Lincoln Cathedral'. The programme notes are adequate, although a little more analysis would have been helpful.

I enjoyed the sound of this CD - the balance between the sultry quiet of Messiaen's Offrande au Saint Sacrement and say, the 'republican' exuberance of March Episcopale by Louis Vierne is perfect. The organist, Colin Walsh, who is the Cathedral Organist Laureate, handles his material with skill and one feels that he is actually enjoying and relating to what he playing.

I can think of few better recordings than this that offers the listener an insight into the magic of French organ music from roughly the first half of the twentieth century. A few of these pieces are well established as a part of the standard repertoire. However others seem to be known to connoisseurs only. Some of these works are the only easily available version in the catalogue.

John France

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