Jean GUILLOU (b.1930)
Concerto Grosso (1978) [22:30]
Concerto 2000 [48:00]
Jean Guillou (organ)
Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire/Vincent Barthe
rec. Cité des Congrès, Nantes, September 2009 (Concerto Grosso), L’Église Saint-Eustache, Paris, September 2000 (Concerto 2000)
ONPL GUILLOU 2010 [70:30]

Jean Guillou has long been recognised as a world class organist, and as well as numerous highly regarded recordings his work as an improviser has also been released on record. The booklet notes reveal a number of unusual creative aspects of Guillou about which I was less familiar. As a pianist he revived the Sonata for piano by Julius Reubke, a pupil of Liszt who died at the age of 24. Guillou is apparently the only musician to have performed both Reubke’s piano sonata and the Sonata for organ, the two pieces which remain as that composer’s only real legacy. A constant pioneer in uses for and design of the organ, Guillou has combined it with numerous instruments in his work, and as well as three symphonies and two piano concertos, has also written seven concertos for orchestra and organ.

The Concerto Grosso is representative of Jen Guillou’s style of composing, whose “music is a theatrical stage [which] deals with dialogues between instruments as dramatic cues and sets up timbral vividness as lightening shafts.” The linguistic idiom of the booklet translation aside, this is a nicely produced and well recorded disc which accurately reflects this timbral vividness. On the subject of the booklet, my only criticism is the lack of any information on the maker of the organ-pipe man on the cover and all over the place elsewhere. The original Concerto Grosso of 1978 is written for a conventional orchestra of strings, woodwinds and horns, but now uses a rich battery of percussion. These additions were done without adapting any other part of the score, but as Sylviane Falcinelli correctly point out, it would be hard to imagine the piece without its dramatic extra colours and textures, now a decisive element in the character of the piece. The work alternates between lyrical calm and extremes of con fuoco energy. The piece might as well be called ‘Concerto for Orchestra’, with the composer’s own commentary a useful indicator of his attitude, one revealed clearly in this performance: “I attach importance to... hearing every instrument as a soloist; I like these instruments coming out individually, or put upon a pedestal... even when they are playing together.” The result is a fascinating technical kaleidoscope, tricky to assimilate on a single listening, but ultimately quite approachable. Guillou’s craftsmanship as an orchestrator and his playful but highly structured use of musical material results in a piece which stands up well viewed from all angles. He doesn’t go in for big tunes, and is ultimately less refined in comparison to, say, Henri Dutilleux. The conviction behind the score and its performance on this recording certainly win through however, and this is a work which deserves wide recognition.

More than twice as long as its partner on this programme, the Concerto 2000 is subtitled Concerto pour orgue et orchestre, but shifts one’s expectations of such a piece right from the start. The composer’s words once again summarise this approach: “When I first composed organ concertos, the topic for me was not to use the instrument in its monumental scope as often done before, but to find some tones liable to become to become cousins - if I may out it thus - of orchestral tones, to such an extent that they can merge into one instrument.” This comment on earlier works is relevant in this case, the Concerto 2000 having been derived at least in part from material used in Guillou's fourth concerto, ‘rethought and developed’ into a government commission and a new piece with which to celebrate the composer's 70th birthday. This CD release on the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire’s own label celebrates his 80th.

As described, there is certainly no element of a soloist/accompaniment role between the organ and the orchestra. Both instruments inhabit the same worlds, equal in significance and power, interacting in strange and virtuosic ways, advancing and receding, intertwined and inextricable. The most magical moments are to be found in unexpected regions of timbre relationships and nuanced colour of sound, as well as some jaw-dropping climaxes. There are themes which appear and are thrown around amongst the orchestral sections and the organ, but this is a musical environment in which one feels the score is as good as invisible: that this is a unique and spontaneous event where no two performances could possibly be even remotely similar. Comparisons with other composers are hard to draw. The piece has an intensity of action within which fragments can remind one of a wide range of other work, but each association is so fleeting and fragmentary that remarking upon them would be a futile exercise.

As ever when becoming used to a ‘new’ composer, it can take a little while to become accustomed to style and idiom. Guillou’s music can at first seem to have something of a scattergun approach to tonality and thematic development, a raw and overwhelming energy which may be hard to take at first. The swiftly changing ‘lightening shafts’ mean that there is never a dull moment, but there is also a sense of instability and constantly shifting sands which is less easy to navigate than with more conventional composers. The lack of clearly differentiated movements over the great 48 minute span of Concerto 2000 is perhaps a little daunting, but the ride is a magnificently exciting one and I certainly never felt the work outstaying its welcome - indeed, I would happily put up my hand in a crowded room of sceptics and lay claim to this as a masterpiece for the new century. As organist in his own concerto Jean Guillou is of course beyond criticism, and the feeling of an orchestra giving its all to make this into a superb creative product in this spectacular live performance is present at every moment. Jean Guillou is essentially a modern romantic, uncompromisingly and intensely personal and anti-trend, and the resultant work is a remarkable achievement. If your interests seek new horizons which blast the listener into an entirely different orbit beyond the Catholic infinities of Messiaen or the intellectual rigours of Boulez, then this should be a central stop on your métro journey of discovery.

Dominy Clements

Uncompromisingly personal and intense, and with never a dull moment.