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Jean LANGLAIS (1907-1991)
Eclipse: Choral and Organ Music
CD1
Psaume Solennel (1962) [13.37]; Caritas Christi (1952) [6.48]; Pastorale and Rondo for organ (1982 [3.53/5.39]; Mass ‘Grant us thy peace’ (1981) [17.51]; Chant de Paix (1942/3) [4.58]; Three Short Anthems (1978) (Beloved let us love one another [1.13]; Grace to you [1.17]; At the name of Jesus [1.08])
CD2
Messe Solennelle (1949) [18.10]; Venite et audite (1958) [1.31]; Ave Maria. Ave Maris Stella for organ (1933-4) [8.16]; Tantum ergo (1940) [2.07]; Fête for solo organ (1946) [5.28]; Messe en style ancien (1952) [11.08]; Ceremony for brass sextet (1989) [10.13]; Ubi Caritas (1986) [5.33]
Gloriae dei Cantores/Elizabeth C. Patterson
Gabriel V Brass Quintet
David Chalmers (organ); James Jordan (organ); Sharon Rose Pfeiffer (organ)
rec. Church of the Transfiguration, Orleans, MA, February, April 2007
GLORIAE DEI CANTORES GSCD041 [56.16 + 62.21]

 

Experience Classicsonline


That Jean Langlais is one of France’s finest composers of church music few would deny but that a very great and significant composer tries to emerge from the liturgical texts may be a more controversial statement. I’m not saying that I can be certain yet, but the more acquaintance I have with his music the more impressed I become. This CD, so lovingly and passionately compiled is an excellent place to start in understanding this remarkable, blind composer and organist. A quick look at one of the Langlais websites seems to confirm that he concentrated on vocal, piano and organ music. Does this make him a second division rather un-versatile composer? There is some fine writing for brass on these two CDs, not least in the four brief movements of Ceremony as well as the writing in other works like Psaume Solennel.
 

The booklet notes by David Chalmers are rather evangelical but very helpful taking us through the music in the order in which it is presented. There are also attractive black and white photos of the magnificent Gothic pile which is Saint Clotilde in Paris, where Langlais was organist and of the organ itself. These notes will be my own guide as I comment on several of the fourteen pieces recorded. 

The Psaume Solennel is the opening work and is a setting of that most joyous of psalms: Number 150. It makes an impressive sound - voices, brass and timpani - the slow sections especially so. Even so, the irregular rhythms which attempt to give the piece an air of rejoicing, are somewhat awkward and the melodic line is lacking in anything too memorable. However that one of the characteristics of the Langlais style is the somewhat angular melodic line. This comes to fruition brilliantly in the musical struggles encapsulated in the settings of the Kyrie Eleison, (Lord have mercy upon us). This is especially the case in the famous wartime Messe Solennelle, where in the final Kyrie the words are passionately and painfully repeated over and over again. Similarly the Kyrie to the Mass ‘Grant us thy peace’, written for the ‘Three Choirs Festival’, turns out to be the longest movement of the entire work, a very unusual occurrence. These Kyries represent the cry of mankind (Lord have mercy) in trying to understand the pain and suffering in the world. Langlais, as I have already intimated, seems to me to be less good in the Gloria movements, where he likes to get through the text quickly and in which his melodies lack a memorable ‘hook’. 

Angular lines can be heard also in the organ parts as in the Agnus Dei of the Messe Solennelle. Langlais insisted that the organ should be considered an equal partner with the choir and that it should make a strong impact and statement of its own. 

Another characteristic of the Langlais language is the use of plainchant which is part of his life-blood. It is there even in one of his last works. Try the somewhat curious setting of Ubi Caritas set so memorably by Duruflé several years before. The plainchant appears and vanishes as if in a sad dream, sometimes in organum, sometimes harmonised. Plainchant is a more subtle presence in the beautifully poised Messe en style ancien. Curiously this short mass does not sound especially ‘old’ despite the fact that that there is much contrapuntal writing. That said, plainchant, whilst not quoted directly, seems to be the stimulant which lies behind the conjunct melodic lines which therefore make a happy contrast with those in the Messe Solennelle. 

Langlais was a close friend and confederate of his exact contemporary Olivier Messiaen. Although they are so different the latter’s influence can occasionally be discerned - not surprisingly in the organ works. Messiaen can be heard in the faster sections of La Nativité, in the lively Fête with its irregular rhythms and in the slower movements of the more meditative Venite et audite. 

We also hear some short and charming introits in the shape of the Tantum Ergo and the Three short anthems. Their simple and elegant melodies will be pleasing to choirs of all abilities. 

The organ used on this recording at the church is not particularly French-sounding but it is a fine instrument. James Jordan is acutely aware of its potential and uses the full instrument gloriously. Its specification is not given but it is of hybrid construction made especially for the church which was opened as recently as 2000. I find the reed stops especially effective in the delightful Pastoral and Rondo.

The choir Gloriae dei Cantores is excellent with fine diction and intonation and a clear and precise ensemble. They achieve an ideal balance aided by the upfront but not overpowering recording. I have reviewed this choir before - a disc of Rubbra (GDCD 024). They seem now to be an even finer instrument. Perhaps this repertoire suits them a little better.

Gary Higginson

 



 


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