Jehan Alain was killed by a German bullet during the invasion of France in 1940 at the age of only twenty-nine. His music for organ, which forms his principal legacy, looks forward to the style which would later be adopted by Messiaen. He studied composition with Dukas and Roger-Ducasse and his music reflects the influence of the later French impressionists. His early death can only be regarded as a major tragedy for the world of music.
These two very well filled CDs containing his ‘complete’ solo organ music come into direct competition with a number of rivals. Naxos have released a pair of discs played by Eric Lebrun on the Cavaillé-Coll organ of the church of Saint-Antoine des Quinze-Vingts in Paris. There are also two sets recorded by the composer’s sister Marie-Claire Alain, one (for Erato, omitting a number of the shorter items) on the Valtrin-Callinet-Schwenkedel organ of the Basilique Saint-Christophe in Belfort, and another (for Intrada) later one on four different French and Swiss organs. There is also a more recent set by Lars Notto Birkeland on Simax
, of which more later. The set by Jean-Baptiste Robin on Brilliant Classics
extends to three CDs, the third of which contains a performance of the seven-minute L’année liturgique Israélite
and the five-minute Variations on a theme of Rimsky-Korsakov
not available elsewhere, as well as the world première recording of Mussorgsky’s Synagogue music
(for voices and orchestra) conducted by Alain. The sound is distinctly poor in Alain’s 1930s recordings, with lots of surface noise and the other works do not really justify the extension to a third disc. There are also sets by James Higdon (on RBW) and Guy Bovet (on Gall) which I have not heard.
The first of Marie-Claire Alain’s sets, the Robin three-disc set, and the Naxos pair of discs, are available at budget price. Under the circumstances it might seem that the more expensive set under consideration here, recorded on an English organ, might be outclassed; but that is by no means the case. In the first place the recorded sound is more recessed than in the Lebrun recordings for Naxos, giving a better sense of space and church acoustic. This brings both gains and losses – the opening of the Litanies
is less clear, but the improvement in atmosphere is palpable. Marie-Claire Alain in her later recording of the Litanies
, at a speed nearer to Bowyer than Lebrun, is no clearer despite a closer recording. Both the later Alain - I have not heard the earlier incomplete Erato set, which Dominy Clements in his reviews on this site of the Birkeland and Robin sets rated highly - and Lebrun produce a more grandiose sound, with the organ thundering out from the speakers. The Nimbus set has a more natural acoustic and a sound that will perhaps feel better in a domestic setting.
Which brings us to the performances themselves. Kevin Bowyer has nothing to fear from comparisons with either Eric Lebrun or Marie-Claire Alain. His speeds are closer to those adopted by the composer’s sister than to those of Lebrun. Presumably she, if anybody, knows how the music should go. There is plenty of grandeur when it is needed, such as in the final movement of the Suite
which opens the first CD. Incidentally none of the sets presents the pieces in the order of composition – which is any event doubtful in the case of some of the smaller works – but all adopt a sensibly contrasted approach. That adopted by Bowyer here gives plenty of variety, interspersing the miniatures among the larger-scale pieces. Comparisons of individual movements with rivals demonstrate that Alain’s music can take a variety of approaches and some may find greater rewards in other interpretations. Since recordings of these works almost invariably come as part of complete sets, one must accept these as a whole and independent comparisons are rather beside the point. Some of his speeds may seem unexpectedly fast – for example his 1933 Intermezzo
is over half a minute shorter than Marie-Claire Alain and over a minute shorter than Birkeland or Lebrun –
but the piece works perfectly well at that tempo and indeed acquires a freshness of approach.
If you like the sound of a naturally recessed church acoustic, then Bowyer is probably your choice for these works. That said, you should not overlook the Simax recording by Birkeland which has a similar but more expansive sound (recorded in Fagerborg Church) and where the organist has taken advantage of recent scholarship to correct a number of errors in the published editions. Alain envisaged his music performed on French organs of the Cavaillé-Coll type, whereas Birkeland’s and Bowyer’s instruments are less reedy and more ‘mainstream’. Some (including myself) may regard that as an improvement, blending the registrations in a more rounded manner. Others may prefer what a friend of mine calls the more ‘French Catholic’ style. In that light Bowyer’s Marcussen instrument is probably a bit more ‘French’ in sound than Birkeland’s. Whichever version you choose, the organ music of Alain should certainly form part of any self-respecting collection.
Paul Corfield Godfrey