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Marie-Claire Alain (organ)
à Notre-Dame de Paris
rec. live, 13 January 1974 and 1 April 1979
SOLSTICE SOCD388 [78:55]

Lauded as the doyenne of French organists, Marie-Claire Geneviève Alain (1926-2013) had the good fortune to be born into a musical family. Her father Albert was an organist and composer, as were her brothers Jehan and Olivier. She forged a three pronged career as concert performer, teacher and recording artist. She holds the distinction of being the most-recorded classical organist of all time, with 260 recordings to her name (including three cycles of the complete organ works of J.S. Bach). She’d studied organ under Marcel Dupré and harmony with Maurice Duruflé at the Paris Conservatoire.

Given her family’s close connection with Notre Dame, I was amazed to read in the booklet that, throughout her career, she only gave five recitals in total there, which adds significantly to the publication of these two recitals, recently issued on the Solstice label. Prior to the inception of Sunday recitals at Notre Dame in 1968, the cathedral apparently had no tradition of organ concerts, with the exception of the annual ‘Chantiers du Cardinal’ concerts. When recitals were established they drew such big names as Marcel Dupré, André Fleury, Suzanne Chaisemartin and Jean Guillou. Alain’s last concert at Notre Dame took place on 27 May 2007. Solstice hints that this concert and one that took place in 1986 may be released sometime in the future – a mouth-watering prospect.

Alain opens her 1974 recital with Bach’s magnificent Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV 546. The noble Prelude showcases the full power and might of the Cavaillé-Coll organ. It’s one of the composer’s most spectacular organ works, and in the hands of Alain the drama is played out in full. The Fugue is a five-voice one. The polyphonic lines are clearly shaped, with the music building to a ferocious climax at the end. In total contrast, Pachelbel’s Chorale Prelude "Mag ich Unglück nicht widerstahn" emits radiance, peace and serenity, and Alain chooses some gleaming registrations to illuminate the music. Guilain’s Suite du second ton is cast in six brief movements. It provides the organist with scope for diverse registration choices, whether it be the trumpet in the fourth piece, or the gentle flutes in the fifth movement. In fact, the suite as a whole is a scintillating, kaleidoscopic display of colour. Alain made great efforts throughout her career to programme the music of her brother Jehan. She performs two at the end of her recital. Choral dorien is dreamy and mystical, whilst Litanies has a joyous and uplifting character, calling time with a coruscating flourish.

The recital which took place five years later on 1 April 1979 opens with Mendelssohn’s Sonata in C minor. It’s the last of six sonatas which constitute his Op. 65. The opening Choral is nicely paced and feels sedate, with the subsequent variations deftly characterized. The Fuga sounds rather four-square and pedestrian to me, but is counteracted by the warm, consoling elements of the Finale (Andante). Alain follows this with the first two movements from Widor’s Organ Symphony No.9, Op.70 'Gothique'. They’re deeply contrasting, with the first densely textured and somber and the second conciliatory in tone.  Like most of Jean Langlais’ music, the Suite Médiévale of 1947 is steeped in Gregorian chant. The Prélude is well upholstered texturally and makes for an impressive curtain raiser. Alain conjures some glowing diaphanous sonorities in the Méditation, whilst Acclamations carolingiennes ends the work in splendor.

These excellently recorded concert performances offer a wide-ranging programme of music.
The first-rate liner notes include a contribution from Alain’s daughter, Aurélie Decourt. This splendid disc will be a treat for all organ music lovers.

Stephen Greenbank

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 546 [14:07]
Johann PACHELBEL (1653–1706)
Choral “Mag ich Unglück nicht wiederstahn” [4:51]
Jean-Adam GUILAIN (c.1680-1739)
Suite of the 2nd Tone [12:23]
Jehan ALAIN (1911-1940)
Dorian Choral, Op. 47 [4:46]
Litanies, Op. 79 [4:08]
rec. live, 13 January 1974

Felix MENDESSOHN (1809-1847)
Organ Sonata No. 6 in D Minor, Op. 65 [13:22]
Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937)
Symphony No. 9 in C Minor, Op. 70 “Gothic
I. Moderato [6:42]
II. Andante sostenuto [5:01]
Jean LANGLAIS (1907-1991)
Suite médiévale, Op. 56 [13:25]
rec. live, 1 April 1979

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