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Le Livre d'Or de l'Orgue Français
André Isoir (organ)
rec. 1972-1976, Saint-Georges de Bouquenom, Sarre-Union; Saint-Maximin, La Sainte-Beaume; Saint-Jacques et Saint-Christophe, Houdan; Saint-Séverin, Paris; Château de Fontainebleau; Saint-Pierre, Poitiers; Bon Pasteur, Angers & Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, France. ADD
Detailed track-list at end of review
LA DOLCE VOLTA LDV 1472 [6 CDs:431:50]

Organ music of the baroque period is mostly associated with German composers such as Bach and Buxtehude. For many people French organ music is identified with the names of César Franck and Widor, or - from the 20th century - Messiaen. The classical French organ music, written in the 17th and 18th centuries, is still an unknown quantity, except for organ aficionados. Even in France it has taken a while for this repertoire to become known and appreciated.
This set of six discs is a reissue of recordings from the 1970s, first released by the label Calliopé. The way the first recording came into existence is telling. In the interview in the booklet André Isoir says: "Jacques Le Calvé, the founder of the Calliopé label (...) wanted me to make a Mozart recording on the organ of the church of Saint-Jacques in Compiègne. But that wasn't at all the right style for the instrument, which, though it didn't possess a strongly marked aesthetic, had a composition well suited to the French classical repertory. That's why I suggested recording something in that field, an idea Le Calvé was rather against to begin with, as he feared it might be boring". After the recording was made he was very enthusiastic, and it led to a project of no fewer than twenty discs which spanned the whole history of French organ music from the renaissance to the 20th century.
Today this repertoire is still not that well-known, except probably some Noëls and individual pieces by composers such as Marchand or, from the second half of the 18th century, Balbastre. The organ masses by Couperin also belong to the better-known part of the repertoire. There is a specific reason for this relative obscurity: French organ music of the baroque period is closely associated with a type of organ which is unique to France. The composers often indicated what kind of registers should be used and it is very hard to find comparable registers on organs from other traditions. If one plays this music on a German 18th century organ its specific features just don't come off and it loses its very character. Another factor is that a large part of the repertoire is closely associated with the liturgy. This set includes three complete organ masses and various hymns. These are all written for the alternatim practice, which means that the organ verses alternate with verses sung in plainchant. In this recording no plainchant has been included, but has become common practice in more recent recordings. The hymns are often based on plainchant melodies but these are probably harder to recognize than, for instance, the chorales in Bach's organ works.
Obviously it is impossible to offer a comprehensive survey of this repertoire on just six discs. An important composer such as Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers is completely omitted, and so is Louis-Claude Daquin. From Nicolas Lebègue, Louis Marchand and Jean-François Dandrieu, who all acted as organists of the Chapelle Royale in Versailles for some time, only a small number of pieces have been included. Fortunately, today they are far better represented in the catalogue than in the days these recordings were made. On the other hand, several pieces by rather obscure composers are included, for instance Gilles Jullien, whose oeuvre is of mixed quality, according to his entry in New Grove. Another little-known composer is Pierre du Mage: his Premier Livre d'Orgue, which comprises just eight pieces, is the only music from his pen which has come down to us. The choice of pieces may be surprising in some respects, for the present buyer this increases the value of this set. The likes of Dandrieu and Marchand are now much better represented on disc than forty years ago, but it won't be very easy to find music by Jullien and Du Mage.
A little information about the lesser-known names in this set would seem useful. Titelouze is one of the most prominent organ composers of the early 17th century. His Hymnes de l'Eglise pour toucher sur l'orgue is one of two collections of liturgical organ music. Isoir plays four of them; in 2012 a recording of the complete set was released on marc aurel edition, played by Markus Goecke, with plainchant verses (review). De Grigny was organist in Paris and in Reims; his music is often more complex, for instance in the use of counterpoint, than that of his contemporaries. This set includes his complete oeuvre, printed as his Premier livre d'orgue in 1699.
Jean Adam Guilain is also considered one of the best organ composers of his time, the first half of the eighteenth century. His Pièces d'orgue, printed in 1706, comprise four suites, each consisting of seven pieces. This is liturgical music in disguise: these pieces are in fact verses for alternatim performances of the Magnificat in four different modes. Not that much is known about Du Mage. He was a pupil of Marchand and worked as organist in Saint Quentin and Laon. In 1719 he gave up his career as a professional musician and entered the civil service.
This set confines itself to what is called the Grand Siècle of French organ music. There certainly isn't a lack of organ music from the second half of the eighteenth century, but this is generally considered a time of decline in quality. Organ music became part of public concerts, and the most famous organist of that time, Claude-Bénigne Balbastre, often played opera transcriptions. The 'secularization' of organ music had its roots around 1700 when elements of the Italian style - increasingly popular in chamber music - and of opera were incorporated into organ music. Several composers made use of the form of the suite, which was common in harpsichord music and works for instrumental ensembles. Louis-Nicolas Clérambault is a good example: his Premier livre d'orgue comprises two suites. As we have already noted Guilain also used this form for his Magnificats. One of the pieces by Dandrieu is called Duo en cor de chasse, and another Muzète - not exactly titles one expects in organ music for liturgical use.
André Isoir was one of the pioneers of the rediscovery of classical French organ music. Before him it was Michel Chapuis who had paid attention to this repertoire. As far as performance practice is concerned this is a kind of blessing in disguise. There was no tradition of performance such as existed in Bach interpretation in Germany. When historical performance practice emerged, there was no tradition which resisted a new approach whereas in Germany it took a while until the new insights were embraced. Isoir made use of Chapuis’s achievements in regard to interpretation as well as those of the French musicologist Édouard Souberbielle and Eugène Borrel all of whom investigated the stylistically 'correct' approach to this repertoire. This may well explain why this playing from the 1970s seem far less outdated than Bach interpretations of that time. In some cases I would prefer a sharper articulation: sometimes Isoir plays too much legato. However, on the whole I have greatly enjoyed his performances. Those who would like to explore this repertoire are perfectly served by this set. A major bonus is that Isoir plays some of the most beautiful historical organs in France. The disposition of these instruments is given in the booklet, but I would have liked some information about their history.
Johan van Veen
Detailed Track-list
CD 1 [75:45]
François COUPERIN (1668-1733)
Messe à l'usage ordinaire des Paroisses, pour les Festes solemnelles [50:56]
Gilles JULLIEN (1650-1703)
Préludes à cinq parties avec pédale de trompette en taille [3:03]
Chromhorne en taille [4:18]
Dialogue [2:04]
Jean-Henry D'ANGLEBERT (1629-1691)
Quatuor sur le Kyrie à trois sujets du plain chant [1:51]
Louis COUPERIN (1626-1661)
Chaconne en ré mineur [3:55]
Branle de Basque [0:57]
Fantaisie [2:28]
Passacaille [6:06]
CD 2 [74:21]
Messe pour les Convents de religieux et religieuses [41:56]
Jehan TITELOUZE (1563-1633)
Veni Creator [8:50]
Pange lingua [8:03]
Ave maris stella [9:32]
Exultet coelum [5:52]
CD 3 [75:29]
Nicolas DE GRIGNY (1672-1703)
Messe [70:09]
Nicolas LEBÈGUE (1631-1702)
Élévation en sol [1:57]
Symphonie sur le fa bémol [3:20]
CD 4 [53:19]
Veni Creator [16:42]
Ave maris stella [10:28]
Pange lingua [9:13]
Verbum supernum [8:10]
A solis ortus [9:34]
CD 5 [75:36]
Jean-Adam GUILAIN (1680-1739)
Suite du premier ton [10:26]
Suite du quatrième ton [15:09]
Suite du deuxième ton [12:46]
Suite du troisième ton [14:25]
Louis MARCHAND (1669-1732)
Plein jeu [2:35]
Fugue [2:20]
Basse de Trompette [2:27]
Quatuor [3:35]
Fond d'orgue [2:01]
Grand Dialogue [9:30]
CD 6 [77:20]
Louis-Nicolas CLÉRAMBAULT (1676-1749)
Suite du 1er ton [18:53]
Suite du 2e ton [17:42]
Gaspard CORRETTE (1670-1733)
Messe à l'usage d'une abbaye royale:
Dialogue de Voix Humaine [1:26]
Dessus de tierce par accords [2:17]
Dialogue à deux choeurs [1:24]
Pierre DU MAGE (1676-1751)
Premier Livre d'orgue [22:31]
Jean-François DANDRIEU (1681-1738)
Livre d'orgue:
Plein jeu du premier ton [1:46]
Fugue sur l'Ave maris stella [2:04]
Basse et dessus de trompette [1:22]
Muzète [1:58]
Offertoire [4:44]
Duo en cor de chasse [0:50]