Alain and Duruflé have much in common. Born within a
few years of each other, both studied at the Paris Conservatoire and held
organist positions in Paris, Duruflé famously at the church of St Etienne du
Mont. Both were influenced by Gregorian chant and incorporated extant melodies
within their music. On the one hand, Alain produced a substantial amount of
organ music in the course of a few years, as well as choral items, chamber
music, and music for solo piano, all of which is worth exploring. He would
surely have gone on to hold a professorship at the Paris Conservatoire had he lived
longer. It is remarkable that Alain produced such a range and quality of music
before the age of thirty. Duruflé was different, publishing only a small
handful of masterpieces during his long life, works which he updated and
refined over the years. Included on this recording is Alain’s magnum opus, the
Trois Danses, as well as the famous Litanies, Le jardin suspendu, Aria, the
Deux Danses à Agni Yavishta and the Variations sur Lucis Creator. Duruflé is
represented by two works: his famous homage to Alain, the Prélude et Fugue sur
le nom d’Alain, a masterpiece of the repertoire dating from 1942, two years
after Alain died whilst in action in northern France;
and the Danse lente (1932) from Duruflé’s own Trois Danses for orchestra, here
transcribed by the performer, William Whitehead.
Both composers have fascinated me for over a decade. I
would recommend Bernard Gavoty’s biography of Alain which contains many of
Alain’s letters, and a visit to Romainmotier to play the Alain house organ. One
could have an interesting discussion about which works were intended for the
house organ and for larger instruments in greater acoustics. Hearing Duruflé
played by Vincent Dubois (then titulaire at Soissons Cathedral) at St Etienne
du Mont three years ago was a wonderful experience, and playing that organ is
an informative experience too.
There is no shortage of recordings on the market:
Alain complete works from Marie-Claire Alain, Eric Lebrun and Kevin Bowyer, for
example, and Duruflé complete works from Olivier Latry and John Scott (both
minus some of the smaller items) amongst others. Whitehead’s choice of the
substantial Oberthür organ in Auxerre Cathedral is a very good one: a
neo-classical instrument dating from 1986 with four manuals including a 32 foot
reed and a battery of trompettes en chamade. Combined with a sympathetic
reverberation time, music, instrument, organ and performer match-up very well.
Whitehead plays with clarity and authority.
Registrations are well chosen and he achieves a good mélange of colours. The
organ though modern can produce soothing tones when needed as well as
astonishing éclat, for example at the end of the Trois Danses. These are given
a mature reading and the details in the playing are well conveyed. I like the
choice of tempi and the organ suits rhythmically incisive playing.
The Aria is beautifully played with nicely judged
tempi and colourful registrations. The closing plainsong-like section has a
wonderfully still quality. Lucis Creator opens with the theme in the pedals played
on a chamade- an arresting start. The first variation bubbles gently along
before the fugue which follows. It also has a relaxed tempo which allow the
harmonies to be savoured to the full. The Danse lente is very effective with
its colourful cromorne solos and rhythmic and harmonic interest. It builds up
to a substantial climax before returning to the charming and luxuriant
harmonies of the opening. Some elements are not dissimilar to the Méditation,
and I’m sure that this transcription will like the Méditation become popular
with recitalists and audiences alike.
Litanies has drive and drama, and is taken at a
suitably frenetic pace. After all, Alain himself said that the end sections
over the pedal point should be played quickly, better botched than musically
deformed! The tutti is impressive. Le jardin suspendu is not taken very
slowly but the feeling of stasis and the impressionistic sound-world are
captured. The Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d’Alain is not an easy work to play
or perform in public, but Whitehead makes it sound effortless. The motto perpetuo
of the Prelude is well captured, whilst the fugue gently moves through the
gears to its impressive conclusion. The start is unhurried, played on a rich
foundation registration, before the power of the reeds are gradually unleashed.
There is a great sense of line and understanding in the playing.
Chandos have produced an attractive booklet with
programme notes on the music written by the performer, a full specification,
photographs and several of Alain’s cartoons. A superb recording.
Graham Mark Scott