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Jehan ALAIN (1911-1940)
Complete Works for Organ
Full track listing at end of review
Lars Notto Birkeland (organ)
rec. 18-20 February, 24-25, 27-28 April 2010, Fagerborg Church, Oslo, Norway
SIMAX PSC1314 [78:01 + 66:51]

Experience Classicsonline

This recording is announced by Simax as a celebration of Jehan Alain’s 100th anniversary, and indicates scholarly work done by the organist to correct inaccuracies between Alain’s written manuscripts and the published editions available. Complete recordings of Jehan Alain’s organ works are less thick on the ground than one might imagine given the quality of much of the composition. Earlier recordings by Thomas Trotter on Argo helped his cause in the 1970s, and Jehan’s sister Marie-Claire Alain’s recordings on Erato are very much worth seeking out. There is a set on the Nimbus label played by Kevin Bowyer of which I’ve only heard fragments, but which seems like an attractive prospect. My own reference is that of Eric Lebrun on two Naxos CDs, 8.553632 and 8.553633, though the differences in the instruments used means the comparison is rather more of the chalk and cheese variety than one which bears too much close scrutiny. Lebrun is recorded on a typically pungent French organ, that at the Church of Saint-Antoines des Quinze-Vingts, Paris.

Both of these sets open with Alain’s best known organ work Litanies. This is a marvellous piece, completely ruined in Eric Lebrun’s headlong rush, which looses all of the syncopated rhythms in a big ball of resonance. Many players seem to equate speed with excitement in this piece, which almost always misses the point. Lars Notto Birkeland is a good deal better, though the rounder sound of the Goll instrument means that even sharp articulation and a more sensible tempo doesn’t quite equate to rhythmic punch. The acoustic in Fagerborg Church is not overly resonant, but neither is the organ particularly detailed sounding. I always like to have an image of the instrument and its environment with organ recordings, but this is something which is not included in the booklet for this release.

Lars Notto Birkeland’s playing for this recording is very good indeed, but for people who care about such things the sound of the organ may be something of a consideration. There is French ‘sound’, of which the Cavaillé-Coll used by Eric Lebrun on Naxos is a good example. This is much more reedy and nasal than the Norwegian source on Simax, which may come across as somewhat anodyne. If this is something that doesn’t bother you then there are many wonderful things to discover and enjoy here, and I would be the last person to dissuade anyone from experiencing Jehan Alain’s music in whatever form.

The magical atmosphere of Le Jardin suspendu is gently and subtly portrayed in this recording, the sustained feel and slow dynamic swell creating the other-worldly feel this piece needs. Gentle moods and sensitive phrasing are features of a nicely turned Petite Pièce, the variations and layering of material typical for both Alain and others of the region and period. Birkeland’s own booklet notes mention each piece in turn, providing useful quotes and references which provide insight and context. While on the subject of the booklet, those remarkable line drawings on the cover were Jehan Alain’s own work, and there are other examples of his quirky and humorous style inside. Further highlights of the first disc are the two Fantaisies, the first of which is revealing of Alain’s desire to allow the listener to draw their own conclusions rather than adhere to any one reference or aspect of belief: “do not try to penetrate too deeply the mysteries of faith and nature, appreciate without dissecting them.”

The Suite pour Orgue is a substantial three movement work and won an award in Paris, though the first two movements were originally written for string quartet. The central Scherzo is particularly fascinating, opening with a restrained sequence of duets in the flute register before launching into rhythmic resolution.

Admired by Olivier Messiaen, you would expect to find some pre-echoes of that master’s organ work in Alain’s music, and indeed the Prélude which follows the Suite on disc 1 is something of a blueprint for some of Messiaen’s more religious expressions. The Fantasmagorie is a lovely little piece which acts as a preliminary sketch for Litanies in its rhythms, this time as a kind of strange dance perceived from a distance. The chorales and melodies which conclude the first half of the programme demonstrate inexhaustible harmonic and lyrical inventiveness allied to the meditative nature of faith and the Church. The final Aria was the last organ piece Alain wrote before his life was tragically cut short early in World War II.

Spreading Alain’s most significant and popular works over the two CDs, disc 2 opens with Trois dances, described as his ‘definitive magnum opus, and his only work of symphonic character.” Comparing timings, Birkeland is pretty much the same as Lebrun, taking a more expansive view only of the third movement, Luttes. The different character of the instruments is spotlit in numerous aspects of this work, with the strange rhythmic interventions in the first movement, Joies, having something of a darker, almost sinister character from the French organ, the Norwegian instrument coming across as a commentator of wittier intent. It’s a point of preference and taste rather than one of criticism, but I think the character of the Parisian instrument conveys more of the mystery and character of the music. The incredible central Deuils or ‘Sorrows’ movement became associated with Alain’s sister Marie-Odile’s death in 1937, and is a huge arching structure with fingerprint nervy rhythms developing with organic might over a sustained 12 minute span. Lebrun’s tighter tempo in the final Luttes gives this movement a more threatening, martial feel, and again, the woollier sound of the Oslo organ tells against in terms of comparison. The massive climaxes are impressive on this Simax recording however, and I have nothing but admiration for Birkeland’s technical prowess and interpretative power.

The remainder of the second disc is taken up with smaller pieces, and favourites such as the disarmingly antique-modern Variations sur un thème de Clément Jannequin, the quiet De Jules Lemaître which is so meditative as to be almost invisible, and the fascinating textures of the Intermezzo are all conveyed nicely in this recording. Alain’s aversion to bombast is reflected by concluding the entire programme with the Postlude pour l'office de Complies, a gently improvisatory piece inspired by one of the composer’s favourite places, the convent church at Valloires.

I would love to be able to recommend this release without reservation. Its presentation and documentation is excellent, the recording is very good, the sequence of works well chosen and the performances all world class. Plaudits go to Simax for marking an under-represented composer’s 100th anniversary in this way. I fear however that for lasting enjoyment and deeper analysis and appreciation my ears will always be yearning for the greater variety of shade and colour to be found in the best of French organs. That said, I’ll bow to Jehan Alain’s quote: “How deeply I wish that, in my music, each and every person found his or her own thoughts, and not mine.”

Dominy Clements

Track listing
CD 1
Litanies (1937) [4:27]
Le jardin suspendu (1934) [6:42]
Petite Pièce (1932) [2:38]
Première Fantaisie (1933/34) [4:43]
Deuxième Fantaisie (1936) [6:55]
Suite pour orgue (1934-36) [17:34]
Prélude et Fugue (1935) [6:04]
Andante (1934) [4:47]
Fantasmagorie (1935) [2:37]
Choral cistercien pour un élévation (1934) [1:32]
Chant donné (1932) [1:32]
Lamento (1930) [3:56]
Choral Dorien (1935) [4:11]
Choral Phrygien (1935) [3:55]
Aria (1938) [6:18]
CD 2
Trois Danses (1937-1940) [25:26]
Monodie (1938) [2:36]
Complainte à la mode ancienne (1932) [1:12]
Variations sur un thème de Clément Jannequin (1937) [5:38]
Variations sur l’hymne «Lucius Creator» (1932) [4:43]
Deux Préludes profanes (1933) [6:56]
Deux Danses à Agni Yavishta (1932/34) [4:41]
De Jules Lemaître (1935) [3:19]
Intermezzo (1935) [6:17]
Berceuse sur deux notes qui cornent (1929) [2:30]
Grave (1932) [2:11]
Climat (1932) [2:59]
Ballade en mode phrygien (1930) [2:47]
Postlude pour l'office de Complies (1930) [5:14]