Jehan ALAIN (1911-1940)
Complete Organ Works
Jean-Baptiste Robin (organ)
rec. 1937-37; 2008-10
Track-listing at end of review
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94233 [3 CDs: 71:58 + 71:37 + 79:26]

A young married man with three children enlisted as an army dispatch rider in the Second World War. He is sent to reconnoitre the German advance near Saumur when he encounters a group of German soldiers. He abandons his motorbike on hearing the German tread around a corner and engages them with his carbine. He kills sixteen of them before being killed himself. He was 29 and was awarded a posthumous Croix de Guerre. If this sounds like the scenario for an adventure film it’s not surprising. In fact it is what happened to one of the most talented composers of the twentieth century and certainly among the greatest composers for the organ of all time, Jehan Alain.

He was taught by his father who in turn was taught by Louis Vierne before going on to study the organ with Marcel Dupré and composition with Paul Dukas. In his short ten year composing career he won many prizes and produced a corpus of works that remain outstanding examples of organ composition in the pantheon of works for the king of instruments. Drawing on influences ranging from early music, Gregorian chant, the exoticism of the east and jazz, with an insatiable curiosity and a love for drawing and poetry as much as for music, he imbued his compositions with majesty and humour. These are underpinned by an infectious originality that is in evidence at every turn.

I was lucky enough to chance upon a concert of his music played by one of the greatest interpreters of it, his sister Marie-Claire Alain, herself an outstanding organist and teacher and winner of four first prizes when she studied under Dupré. The concert was held in the church of St. Jacob, the Bigger in Prague, the best possible venue to experience this magnificent music. It was a truly awe-inspiring occasion when these fabulous sonorities came into their own in one of the finest baroque churches anywhere in Europe. In one’s own home the experience is hardly the same, nevertheless the music is so overwhelmingly magnificent that the thrill is still there. The set begins with one of Alain’s most well known and highly regarded works Litanies. This bursts forth from your speakers like a lion, mighty and regal and holds you in thrall for its four plus minutes. The contrast wrought by the second track Intermezzo, quiet and refined in character, is huge. It serves further to emphasise the previous one which is still resonating in your mind. It shows how much thought went into the juxtaposing of the works on these three discs.

The Trois Danses are wonderfully inventive, the second of which is the longest piece of all. It creates an otherworldly atmosphere that transports you away from your living room. Alain dedicated this work to his beloved sister. Marie-Odile died in a mountain climbing accident when she saved her brother Olivier rather than herself. It is subtitled Funeral dance in honour of a heroic memory. There are 55 tracks on the three discs which comprise his total output for organ, including some never before available on record. There are many highlights, not least among them the Deux Danses à Agni Yavishta on disc two. These showcase his interest in the East fuelled by a visit to a colonial exhibition in 1931. They are wonderfully evocative miniatures that perfectly encapsulate the eastern idiom as seen through a western prism. Le jardin suspendu shows an influence from his contemporary Messiaen and in the words of Alain himself ‘The hanging garden, it’s the perpetually sought after and elusive ideal of the artist; it’s the unattainable and inviolable sanctuary’. There are several world première recordings including a little gem Canon en mode dorien pour piano et harmonium that captivates despite its all too brief 82 seconds. The playing by Jean-Baptiste Robin is superb and finely nuanced and his choice of the organs is so thoughtful, cleverly matching their qualities to particular works.

The set is completed by the only known recordings of Alain himself playing, firstly his Les Fêtes de l’année Israëlite and then, with a choir and orchestra, his Synagogue Music. Despite the comparatively poor recording of these, dating, from 1937 or 1938 the experience of hearing this brilliant organ composer playing his own music only two years before his tragic but heroic death is profoundly moving.

This set is an absolute must for any organ enthusiast but anyone will be hugely affected by these works, the superlative playing, excellent recording and totally brilliant music from one of the greatest ever writers for the organ. I cannot overemphasise the thrill of listening to these captivating compositions.

Steve Arloff

see also review by Dominy Clements (December 2011 Bargain of the Month)

I cannot overemphasise the thrill of listening to these captivating compositions.


CD 1 [71:58]
Litanies JA 119 (August 1937) [4:26]
Intermezzo JA 66bis (1934-35) [5:40]
Trois Danses JA 120A & 120bis (1937-38) [21:27]
Choral cistercien pour une Élévation JA 134 (1934) [1:52]
Deuxième Fantaisie JA 117 (1936?) [7:35]
Suite JA 69, 70, 82 (1934-35) [17:23]
Choral dorien JA 67 (19350 [5:22]
Choral phrygien JA 68 (1935) [3:19]
Trois Minutes JA 30, JA 3 & JA 32 (1932) [4:48]

CD 2 [71:37]
Variations sur un theme de Clément Jannequin JA 118 (1937) [5:46]
Fantasmagorie JA 63 (1935) [2:49]
Chant donné JA 37 (1932] [1:28]
Deuxième Prélude profane (Und jetz) JA 65 (6 March 1933) [3:15]
Deux Danses à Agni Yavishta: Première Danse JA 77 (13 October 1932) [1:16]; Deuxième Danse JA 78 (1932) [3:16]
Aria JA 138 (November 1938) [6:59]
Berceuse sur deux notes qui cornent JA 7bis (August 1929) [2:30]
Prélude JA 75 (1935) [3:36]
Petite pièce JA 33 (December 1932) [2:39]
Postlude pour l’Office de Complies JA 29 (1930) [5:04]
Ballade en mode phrygien JA 9 (1930) [2:22]
Berceuse JA 86 (17 April 1936) [2:31]
Lamento JA 14 (February 1930) [4:04]
Variations sur Lucis Creator JA 27 (January 1932) [3:47]
Monodie JA 135 (September 1938) [2:13]
Complainte à la mode ancienne JA 38 (1932) [0:41]
Climat JA 79 (1932) [2:51]
Fugue JA 57 (1935) [3:17]
Premier Prélude profane (Wieder an) JA 64 (1933) [3:02]
Andante JA 89 (Suite monodique pour piano, 1935) [4:51]
De Jules Lemaître JA 62 (1935) [3:12]

CD 3 [79:26]
Variation sur un chant donné de Rimski-Korsakov JA 131A* (December 1930) [4:55]
L’Année liturgique Israélite JA 139 (1938) [7:13]
Fugue en mode de fa JA 28 (1932) [1:11]
Le Jardin suspend (Chacone) JA 71 (1934) [7:04]
Fugue sur un sujet de Henri Rabaud JA 133A* (1933) [4:34]
Verset-Choral JA 6 (March 1931) [1:43]
Canon en mode dorien pour piano et harmonium JA 61* (1932) [1:22]
Première Fantaisie JA 72 (1933) [5:01]

Deuxième Fantasie JA 117 (2nd version) [6:32]

Jean-Baptiste Robin (organ)

Les Fêtes de l’année Israélite [6:08]
Synagogue Music*
Oumordekhoy [2:47]
Osseko Edroch [4:07]
Ono Tovo [4:12]
Vehakohanim [4:32]
Lekho Dodi [6:08]
Adonoy Molokh [2:32]
Kol Nidre [4:12]
Schivo Berokhoss [5:05]

Jehan Alain (organ)
Choeur de la Synagogue rue Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth/Joseph Blumberg
Choeur et Orchestre de la Synagogue rue Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth/Léon Algazi
* World première recordings

rec. 29 October, 2008, Église Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, Paris, France (CD1, 1-6); 3-4 January, 2009 Église Saint-Louis-en-l’Île, Paris, France (CD2, 1-18); 2-3 October, 2010, Église Sainte-Radegonde, Poitiers, France (CD1 7-15; CD2 19-22; CD3 1-8); 2 March, 2009 Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal, Ohio, USA (CD3, 9 - live recording); 1938 (CD3,10); 1937or 1938 (CD3, 11-18), Synagogue de la rue Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth, Paris, France.
Sound recording: Olivier Thuault (CD1, CD2 and CD3, 1-8); Harley V. Piltingsrud (CD3, 9)
Engineer: Étienne Grossein