Jehan ALAIN (1911-1940)
Complete Works for Organ
Full track listing at end of review
Jean-Baptiste Robin (organ)
Jehan Alain (organ Les Fêtes de l’année Israélite)
Chœur et Orchestre de la Synagogue rue Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth/Léon Algazi (Synagogue Music).
rec. 2009-2010, Église Saint-Étienne-du-Mont and Église Saint-Louise-en-l’Île, Paris; Église Sainte-Radegonde, Poitiers and Cincinnati Museum Center, Union Terminal, Ohio (Deuxième Fantaisie 2nd version). 1938, Synagogue de la rue Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth, Paris (Les Fêtes de l’année Israélite, Synagogue Music)
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94233 [3 CDs: 71:58 + 71:37 + 79:26]

As ever, we have here an extremely competitive box set from the Brilliant Classics label – but what’s this – a complete Jehan Alain organ works collection on three discs? Not only is this a new collection and not a re-release, there are bonus tracks and world premiere recordings to be found in this collection, as well as the only known recordings of Alain’s own organ playing. Still searching for a ‘perfect’ Jehan Alain organ collection and still slightly underwhelmed by the instrument used with Lars Notto Birkeland’s otherwise excellent Simax recording (see review), does this answer a prayer? Almost, but not quite. It seems churlish to be critical of such a gift, but there are some points which have to be made.

This is a very well recorded set, and the carefully chosen instruments used have the French character we’re looking for with this music. Jehan Alain’s most popular piece, Litanies, starts the whole thing off however and nearly has us chucking the whole thing in the bin straight away. When will people grasp the idea that fast does not necessarily mean spectacular? Yes, Jean-Baptiste Robin’s virtuoso technique is on display to a breathtaking extent, but he rushes through this piece at a pace which suggests he was desperate to leave the organ loft for a visit to the lavatory. Many of the essential driving rhythmic details are lost entirely, and if you don’t know the piece many of its secrets will remain forever hidden in the blistering rush with this version. I have a feeling he has played this piece so often that he forgets we want to hear it properly, not have it sprayed over us as if from a high-power hose. Alain himself said of this piece that the performer should “push yourself to the limit of speed and clarity”, so I suppose we have to accept that at times we will go beyond with the latter, and the ending is indeed “an irrepressible hurricane that overthrows everything in its path” from Robin, so listeners can make up their own minds, but taste respectfully dictates a more expansive view. Marie-Claire Alain’s performance on Erato is a good deal more controlled sounding, and its more measured pace allows the organ to swing through the acoustic like a Big-Band of angels.

Good, now that’s out of the way we can pick out a few highlights and be a little more positive. Jean-Baptiste Robin’s only real and only occasional weakness is perhaps most often to be picked out in the rhythmic aspects of the music. Little details are approached a little vaguely here and there throughout the collection, but the atmosphere created in Alain’s best works, like the Trois Danses, is quite everything one could wish for. On can spend many a happy hour exploring gorgeous works such as the Suite, with its tonal fields, limpid textures and powerful final Choral. Each disc is packed solid with wonderful music, and CD 2 opens with the Variations sur un thème de Clément Jannequin which always gives me a similar frisson to those unearthly notes you hear from natural horns. Robin is reliably moving in the shorter pieces with a devotional character, such as the Chant donné. The programming has a surfeit of ‘sundry’ pieces on this second disc, and there might profitably have been a bit of mixing up with the more extended cycles from CD 1, but this is a very minor point. Each of these works is a miniature masterpiece, and though there are arguably some tuning issues with one of the organs used these are all very well played examples.

CD 3 holds the main USP for this collection, with premiere recordings of the Variations sur un chant donné de Rimski-Korsakov and the Fugue sur un sujet de Henri Rabaud. The first of these is a set of short, sometimes even aphoristically miniature variations which the booklet notes suggest bear comparison with Marcel Dupré. There are some wonderful moments in the piece, but it doesn’t hang well together as a single unity – the sections being too diminutive to create a feeling of flow or development. According to the booklet, the Fugue was “Jehan Alain’s prize for fugue from the Conservatoire”, going some way beyond stiff academicism in a strongly expressive piece which still stays within the rules and conventions of the form. The little Canon en mode dorien pour piano et harmonium is another premiere recording, but has been transposed in key and is played on neither piano nor harmonium, so has to be docked some credits in terms of authenticity. Following a spectacular rendition of the Première Fantaisie, we are given another recording of the Deuxième Fantaisie played on the instrument at the Cincinnati Museum Center in Ohio, which provides an alternative glimpse of the music on the more rounded but fascinating and sometimes creepily scary colours of an instrument by Ernest M. Skinner (1866-1960). Jehan Alain’s recording of Les Fêtes de l’année Israélite is a bit mono and distant, but aside from some gritty distortion at times actually sounds surprisingly good considering its vintage. It shows Alain as a seriously skilled performer, and not afraid of throwing in the occasional witty passing note on occasion. The Synagogue Music consists of nice arrangements of traditional Hebrew songs with organ and strings. These give us a glimpse into a world of drama and passionate expression unknown to those of us brought up with the good old Church of England. It also gives clues to the kinds of modes and melodic shapes which would have influenced Jehan Alain throughout his all too brief life.

If you shop around this release can be bought for what might be termed ‘a steal’, and to sum up, it is worth every penny even at its insubstantial full price. If you can get hold of Marie-Claire Alain’s Erato recordings these will I suspect provide a more satisfying long-term investment, but this bargain is too good to let lie. It is not only a very good place to enter the world of Jehan Alain’s organ music for the first time, but an excellent place to explore further even if you already have one or other collection.

Dominy Clements

Not quite perfect, but still worth every penny.

Track listing
CD 1
Litanies (1937) [4:26]
Intermezzo (1934-35) [5:40]
Trois Danses (1937-1938) [21:28]
Choral cistercien pour un élévation (1934) [1:52]
Deuxième Fantaisie (1936 ?) [7:35]
Suite pour orgue (1934-35) [17:23]
Choral Dorien (1935) [5:22]
Choral Phrygien (1935) [3:19]
Trois Minutes (1932) [5:48]

CD 2
Variations sur un thème de Clément Jannequin (1937) [5:46]
Fantasmagorie (1935) [2:49]
Chant donné (1932) [1:28]
Deuxième Prélude profane (1933) [3:15]
Deux Danses à Agni Yavishta (1932/34) [4:32]
Aria (1938) [6:59]
Berceuse sur deux notes qui cornent (1929) [2:30]
Prélude (1935) [3:36]
Petite Pièce (1932) [2:39]
Postlude pour l'office de Complies (1930) [5:04]
Ballade en mode phrygien (1930) [2:22]
Berceuse (1936) [2:31]
Lamento (1930) [4:04]
Variations sur l’hymne «Lucius Creator» (1932) [3:47]
Monodie (1938) [2:13]
Complainte à la mode ancienne (1932) [0:41]
Climat (1932) [2:51]
Fugue (1935) [3:17]
Premier Prélude profane (1933) [3:02]
Andante (1934) [4:51]
De Jules Lemaître (1935) [3:12]

CD 3
Variations sur un chant donné de Rimski-Korsakov (1930) [4:55]
L’Année liturgique israélite (1938) [7:13]
Fugue en mode de fa (1932) [1:11]
Le jardin suspendu (1934) [7:04]
Fugue sur un sujet de Henri Rabaud (1933) [4:34]
Verset-Choral (1931) [1:43]
Canon en mode dorien pour piano et harmonium (1932) [1:22]
Première Fantaisie (1933) [5:01]
Deuxième Fantaisie (2nd version) [6:32]
Les Fêtes de l’année Israélite [6:08]
Synagogue Music [33:38]