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Jehan ALAIN (1911-1940)
Le grand rythme de la vie
Suite [18:37]
Deux préludes profane [6:33]
Petite pièce [3:00]
Trois danses [24:41]
Aria [7:43]
Thomas Monnet (organ)
rec. Church of Notre-Dame d’Auteuil, Paris, date not given
HORTUS 180 [60:39]

A unique atmosphere hangs over the music of Jehan Alain, like some kind of swirling yet elusive veil. From under the shroud of this veil glimpses of the exotic and the oriental, grief and unease, anger and troubled retrospection, emerge. So distinct and fully developed is Alain’s style that despite the fact that he died at the tragically early age of 29, few suggest that here was an unfulfilled genius; in a creative life which lasted just a decade (roughly from 1929 to 1939) he produced a body of 120 works, including some 30 for organ, nearly all of which show an astonishing level of maturity. Indeed, Alain is one of the most immediately identifiable of all composers, speaking in accents quite different from his contemporary, Messiaen, and a world away from the stirring self-confidence of his teacher Marcel Dupré.

Possibly our perceptions of Alain’s music are coloured by his heroic death. Serving as a motorcycle despatch rider with the French army at the start of the Second World War, he encountered a party of German soldiers near Saumur, and shot and killed 16 of them before being killed himself. Such was his heroism that the Germans buried him with full military honours and the French posthumously awarded him the Croix de Guerre. But even without this knowledge, there is no denying that his organ music has a peculiarly distinctive and ominous quality, considerably enhanced by his exploration of the tonal qualities of the instrument, which was, for him (as Grove puts it), “shaped in part by the remarkable salon organ constructed by his father, and in part by a vision of a modern instrument possessing the classical virtues”.

Thomas Monnet has chosen a handful of Alain’s organ works for this recording, and while the most popular works (Litanies, Le jardin suspendu, Danses à Agni Yavishta, and the like) are absent, what is presented exemplifies Alain at his most original, inventive and distinctive. Monnet is utterly attuned to the style of Alain’s music, his performances are compelling, and the choice of instrument inspired; it makes exactly the right sort of sound and speaks into exactly the right sort of acoustic to set off this intense music to its best. He is a superbly sensitive player who also possesses considerable virtuosity, and this combination means that the astonishing scope of the Danses is powerfully conveyed. I am also greatly taken by the delicacy with which he handles the Aria with its strangely unsettling rhythmic underpinning of a haunting melodic line. Full marks to the Hortus recording engineers who have captured both the deep pedal notes and the vast dynamic range of this instrument magnificently.

Unfortunately, Monnet has written his own booklet notes, which are dauntingly pretentious and obscure. The original French is bad enough, but the English translation (peppered with such weirdnesses as “manifested a screaming exteriority”) is best avoided without a handful of paracetamol and/or a tumbler of neat whisky to hand. Other than Monnet’s rambling essay, the booklet is as good as useless, offering no information about this instrument other than a close up shot of the manuals, and no recording data. Luckily the recording quality, the playing and the music are all so good, that they speak amply for themselves.

Marc Rochester

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