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French Organ Music
Jean LANGLAIS (1907-1991)

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

Offrande au Saint Sacrement

Gaston LITAIZE (1909-1991)

Scherzo (1932)
Lied (1934)
Epiphanie

Guy ROPARTZ (1864-1955)

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

Three Improvisations

Marcel DUPRE (1886-1971)

Evocation (1941)
Colin Walsh (organ of Lincoln Cathedral)
Recorded at Lincoln Cathedral 1 - 4 September 2003. DDD
GUILD GMCD 7278 [77.22]


Guild records have released an exceptionally fine recording of French organ music which embraces three generations of composers. This spans a period of some seventy years, ranging mainly from the late-romanticism of the early 1900s to the very different sound-world of the 1960s.

Guy Ropartz and Louis Vierne, were both pupils of César Franck. Marcel Dupré was a protégé of Vierne. Jean Langlais, Gaston Litaize and Olivier Messiaen were pupils of Dupré and all three entered Dupré’s Organ Class at the Paris Conservatoire in 1927. As fate would have it, they all died within the space of a few months, in 1991-92. By this time Messiaen had achieved word-wide recognition and Langlais was gaining acclaim as the successor of Franck and Tournemire at the Basilica of Sainte-Clotilde.

Langlais and Litaize were both blind (as was Vierne) and they both benefited from the inspiring musical education provided by the Institut des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris. After his studies with Dupré, Langlais joined the Composition Class of Paul Dukas, who told him that he was "a born composer."

The Suite Brève (1947) was one of the first works which Langlais published as Organiste du Grande Orgue de la Basilique Ste Clotilde, soon after his appointment late in 1945. The freshness and individuality of the music won many friends in France and America but provoked a more negative reaction from conservative British church circles. Langlais’s chant-based Incantation pour un jour Saint (1949) was inspired by the ancient liturgy of the Easter Vigil, which marks the first celebration of the resurrection of Christ during the night preceding Easter Sunday.

Olivier Messiaen was a complex and original thinker who frequently ventured into foreign and often exotic worlds of musical expression, far removed from those in which his contemporaries moved. The manuscript of Messiaen’s Offrande au Saint Sacrement was discovered among his papers by his widow after his death. This piece, which is thought to be an early work, was published as recently as 2001.

Gaston Litaize has never acquired a worldwide reputation on quite the same scale as Messiaen or Langlais, but he was a distinguished teacher and a great performing artist with an encyclopaedic repertoire. Two of his works in this programme are concert pieces, taken from a set of Douze Pièces composed at various times during the 1930s, and published in 1939. The feather-light Scherzo (1932) is a worthy successor to the French tradition of concert scherzos established in the 19th century by Gigout and Widor, and then developed by Louis Vierne and Maurice Duruflé. The Lied of (1934) is a deeply-felt and beautifully-proportioned song-without-words.

Langlais’s spectacular Evocation was composed in 1964 as part of a suite entitled Homage to Rameau, which was commissioned by the French Minister of Fine Arts in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the death of Rameau. Incidentally, the initial letters of the titles of the six movements form an acrostic which spells out Rameau’s name. Langlais gives no clue as to exactly what is being evoked in this piece, but it is undeniably one of his most successful and spectacular concert works.

The music of Guy Ropartz comes from a very different world. After his studies with Massenet and Franck, Ropartz left Paris and spent the whole of his long life fostering the musical life of provincial France. He was Director of the Conservatories at Nancy and then at Strasbourg. Ropartz was the only one of these six composers here who was not a professional organist. His organ music forms just a small part of his prolific output as a composer. His elegiac Prélude funèbre (1896) is a memorable essay in the post-Franck style, the poignant melody and intricate accompaniment recalling the introspective intensity of Franck’s own Prière.

Louis Vierne was the great romantic among the French organist/composers of his generation. Vierne was blind and was Organist of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame for nearly forty years. He died there on the organ-bench during a recital in 1937. At a 1928 recording session at the Notre-Dame Cathedral, Vierne performed works of J.S. Bach and also set down Three Improvisations which Maurice Duruflé was to later transcribe into written notation.

Marcel Dupré forms the link between the generations in this programme. Ambitious and single-minded in the pursuit of his artistic ideals, Dupré was a remarkable character; as Professor at the Paris Conservatoire, organist of Saint-Sulpice, tireless international concert artist, and prolific composer, he dominated the French organ world of his time. Described as a symphonic poem, Evocation was written in memory of his father. Composed in 1944 in occupied France in the middle of the second world war, at a time of deep personal sorrow, this music mixes nostalgia, anger and defiance into a potent brew.

British organist Colin Walsh has given numerous recitals in many countries throughout the world and is steadily building an excellent reputation for himself. Walsh who has studied with Simon Preston and the composer/organist Jean Langlais has met Olivier Messiaen and is a celebrated interpreter of 20th century French repertoire.

This is an outstanding recital and the soloist is a splendid advocate for these twentieth century French works. The more substantial scores such as Langlais’s Suite Brève and Evocation are performed with tremendous conviction, substantial authority and convey a most compelling atmosphere. Shorter works such as Litaize’s Scherzo, Lied and Epiphanie are played with total sureness and with real depth in what is a most successful and well planned recital. I must single out Vierne’s Three Improvisations for special praise where the soloist’s empathy with the score is breathtaking and emotionally compelling.

The recording of the 1898 ‘Father Willis’ organ of Lincoln Cathedral is of the highest quality and Guild are to be congratulated on a release that is hard to fault.

Michael Cookson



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