Joys, Mournings and Battles
Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986)
Suite, Op.5 (1934) [25:12]
Jehan ALAIN (1911-1940)
Three Dances, JA120 (1938-40):
Prelude and Fugue on the name of A.L.A.I.N, Op.7 (1942):
Christopher Houlihan (organ)
rec. Rice Memorial Organ, All Saints, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA. (C) and (P) 2010. DDD
Booklet includes full organ specification.
TOWER HILL RECORDINGS TH-72025 [63.45]
Both the label and the performer were new to me, though I see that Christopher Houlihan, born in 1987, is already something of a celebrity: not only does he have his own fan club, Tower Hill advertise Houli fans’ caps, T-shirts and mugs. His first CD, featuring Louis Vierne’s Second Symphony (TH-72018) won praise from The American Organist, Choir and Organ and The Diapason.
The new CD features music by Alain and Duruflé: the unusual title comes from the three movements of Alain’s Trois Danses - Joies, Deuils and Luttes - a wonderful work completed just before he was killed by a sniper’s bullet in action in 1940. There are several strong rivals in that work - Marie-Claire Alain on a super-budget Warner 2-CD set of almost all of her brother’s music (2564699287), Kevin Bowyer on Nimbus, an even more complete recording (2 CDs, NI5551/2) and William Whitehead on a single-CD selection of Alain and Duruflé organ music (Dances of Life and Death: Chandos CHAN10315 - see review and my December 2008 Download Roundup.)
Whitehead plays the first movement of the Suite, Joies, more snappily than Houlihan: it’s not just a matter of the faster time (7:03 against 7:42), the whole movement breathes joy much more in his hands. I enjoyed the Houlihan version in a slightly passive way, but Whitehead made me sit up and take notice: there are more joys here than from Houlihan. Whitehead also takes the second movement, Deuils, faster than Houlihan (12:02 against 13:24). In theory, this should mean that he fails to capture the mood of grief implied by the title, but such is not the case, though Houlihan is perhaps slightly more successful at capturing the ‘slow, heavy dirge’ - to quote Houlihan’s own notes - of the opening. It’s Whitehead who captures what the Chandos notes describe as ‘a stylised and ultimately grief-stricken dance, a funeral cortège’. Houlihan captures the grief but the dance or cortège, whichever metaphor you prefer, almost comes to a halt for the first three minutes and again at the mid-point of the movement.
Marie-Claire Alain must have a strong claim as the interpreter-in-chief of her brother’s work. Her 1972 ADD Erato recording may not have quite the impact of the more recent Chandos and Tower Hill recordings, but it certainly doesn’t diminish the appeal of her interpretations. The Trois Danses are presented complete on one track on my copy on the Warner Ultima label, the forerunner of the current release, which serves to remind us that the music was conceived as a single entity. In many ways hers is the most striking version of all - the opening Joies made me sit up just as much as Whitehead and she achieves as much of a sense of grief at the opening of Deuils as Houlihan whilst maintaining the pace of Whitehead’s cortège. There’s less to choose in the final movement, Luttes, but by this time Houlihan has been outshone by Alain and Whitehead. Both of these kept me on the edge of my seat, even though I know the work quite well: another case of the good being outdone by the best. Marie-Claire takes a couple of minutes less for the work overall than Whitehead, who again takes a couple of minutes less than Houlihan, yet she achieves the ‘densité et ... noblesse peu communes’, to which Alain Cochard refers in the Erato notes, better than either.
Whitehead offers more Alain and Marie-Claire almost all of her brother’s output for the organ. If you fall under the spell of Trois Danses, I’m sure that you will want more of the music of this remarkable composer who, had he lived, might even have eclipsed Messiaen. The Warner set will achieve that for you at minimal cost (around £8.50 in the UK).
The Whitehead recording on Chandos also features Duruflé’s 1942 tribute to Alain, the Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d’Alain, thereby duplicating all but the 25-minute Duruflé Suite on the new recording. Choice between the two will depend to some extent on preferences between that work and the other short Alain works on Chandos, including my personal favourite, the wonderfully named Deux Danses à Agni Yavishta.
Whitehead again takes the Prélude sur le nom d’Alain at a livelier pace than Houlihan, though the two are closely in agreement for the ensuing fugue. Once more I was happy with the new recording until I started to make comparisons. Houlihan himself describes the Prélude as ‘perpetually-in-motion’, but this description applies more to Whitehead’s performance than to his. Fagius (BIS-CD1304) and Flamme (CPO 777042-2) also take the Prélude considerably faster than Houlihan and Fagius’s Fugue is faster than anyone else’s. Whitehead and Houlihan have, I think, just about the right idea for this andante movement.
Henry Fairs, the least expensive guide to Duruflé’s complete organ music (8.557924) and on a Cavaillé-Coll organ to boot, also seems to me to have the right idea about this work. Reviewing this Naxos recording, John France took this work as his touchstone: liking it, he liked the rest of the CD too - see review - though he thought the lover of Duruflé unlikely to be content with fewer than half a dozen recordings. It’s especially true of this work that no one interpretation will suffice: I may prefer the older versions to Houlihan’s new recording, but I cannot deny that he brings out the quiet spirituality which is such a feature of Duruflé’s music better than any of his rivals, though Fairs comes close.
The Suite, Op.5, features on the three very fine complete recordings of Duruflé’s organ music which I’ve mentioned above, from Hans Fagius, Henry Fairs, and John France’s first choice of Friedhelm Flamme (CPO 777042-2 - see review, with very full details of Duruflé’s music). Houlihan takes the outer movements slowly and the Sicilienne central movement faster than Fairs, who is surely a little too slow here, though he captures its intimate mood well. Fagius and Flamme are fastest in all three movements without losing that sense of intimacy in the Sicilienne.
The concluding Toccata is a real warhorse: all concerned play it well, but Flamme’s ultra-fast performance wins the day, without ever sounding rushed. Fagius takes almost a minute longer and Houlihan sounds almost geriatric before his time, though the contrast is not as great as the timings might seem to indicate (7:49 against 8:30 and 9:11) and the overall effect is powerful in all three versions.
One clear advantage of the Chandos recording concerns the choice of the very fine Oberthür organ in Auxerre Cathedral, but Houlihan also has a mighty beast at his disposal, the restored Æolian-Skinner organ at All Saints, Worcester, Massachusetts, a description and full specification of which are included in the notes.
With so much depending on subjective feeling, especially in Duruflé, you ought to try to hear samples of all the recordings for yourself if possible. The Naxos Music Library, my access-point to many of the recordings which I’ve mentioned, will allow you to stream the Whitehead CD on Chandos and the complete recordings of Duruflé’s organ music on Naxos, BIS and CPO, as well as other complete recordings which I haven’t sampled, on Delos and ClassicO. It also offers the 2-volume sets of Alain’s complete organ music from Lebrun (Naxos) and Bowyer.
The Tower Hill recording is good, with a wide dynamic range which makes the softest music difficult to hear: a volume boost makes the loudest items, such as the Toccata from the Duruflé Suite, Op.5 (track 3) too loud unless you have very tolerant neighbours. Christopher Houlihan’s own notes are lucid and helpful, but Whitehead’s in the Chandos booklet are even more so. The typo on the back of the new CD - Mournigs for Mournings (track 5) - is a little unfortunate.
I’m sorry not to be more enthusiastic about this recording. It contains some fine interpretations of this excellent music, but there are just so many more recommendable rivals, including complete recordings of the organ music of Alain and Duruflé, some at budget price, that I can recommend it only to fans of Christopher Houlihan - the Houli-fans - or to those who want just these three works and no other.
Nothing much wrong, but the competition is too fierce for a recommendation.