Until a recent weekend in Paris Jean Guillou was known to me somewhat vaguely
as a veteran organist of distinction, and I accordingly took the opportunity
to hear him give a recital at Saint Eustache, where he has been titular organist
for many years. He began with Haydn's pieces for a musical clock and the
vivacity of his playing and witty, modern interpretation of these simple
tunes made an immediate impression. He followed with his own innocently titled
Scenes of Childhood, which took me aback. Quite other than the idealised
childhood generally represented in music, it transpired to have been inspired
by Henry James The Turn of the Screw, upon which Britten's haunting
and disturbing opera is also based. Guillou's final improvisation was so
dramatic and dissonant that people who had not known what to expect quickly
began to leave.
In Paris I bought Guillou's CD with Scenes d'enfants and two others
of his compositions, 18 Variations Op 3 and Six Sagas, three of them re-worked
improvisations (Philips 456 512-2). In the Sagas can be heard dreams, ancient
chant, a frenetic dance "interrupted by exasperated harshness"and a lyrical
tale punctuated by a "destructive outburst resolved with the memory of great
Exploring later some more of his Philips CDs, celebrated with awards by
Diapaison, France's equivalent to The Gramophone, I learned that he is first
and foremost a composer who has pushed back technical limits of his instrument
to secretly develop a singular musical world, overshadowed by his fame as
Guillou is at an opposite pole to his internationally more famous contemporary,
the contemplative Messiaen, who celebrated his devout religious belief in
everything he composed in music which is often passive and never goal oriented.
Guillou offers instead dramatic gestures and fantastical poetic images, inventing
the dramatic organ, divorced from all its associations as a religious instrument.
He is an organ polymath, writer, teacher and organ desgner credited with
imposing a new individuality upon the organ of the twentieth century.
Guillou has a special interest in exploring association of the organ with
other instruments. In the Philips collection there is a Fantasie
Concertante with 'cello (Alexander Kniasev) on 362 774-2; a Gerald Manley
Hopkins setting Andromeda with soprano (Kioko Okada) on 456 513-2
and a reciter (Francois Castang) in Alice au pays de l'orgue on 456
511-2, a Young Person's Guide to the Organ in which Lewis Carroll's Alice
is imagined going back through her looking-glass again into a world of dancing
flutes, grumpy bourdons, pedantic bombards, harsh cromornes and craggy rankets!
I found all these CDs captivating and they have been played several times
over with continung pleasure.
No less interesting are Jean Guillou's CDs of other repertoire. Bach
Verany PV 730001) has the clarity and verve characteristic of all his
playing. There is air in the texture which makes it easy to hear the
Liszt, played on a Kleuker organ at Alpe d'Huez and a Marcussen in Rotterdam,
has similar qualities which command respect and give great pleasure. This
well balanced programme includes the Ad no, ad salutarem Fantasia
and Fugue and a syncretic version of the Pelude and Fugue on B.A.C.H.,
together with Guillou's own entirely convincingtranscriptions for organ of
orchestral symphonic poems, Orpheus and Prometheus. Guillou
succeeds in his aim to enrich Liszt's contrapuntal work and seeks to enrich
the borders of the instrument's "requirements and possibilities" (Festivo
There is a whole CD of improvisations, six broadcast live on themes chosen
by listeners to three French radio stations, and Visions Cosmiques
dedicated to the Apollo 8 mission (Philips 446 644-2).
Most astonishing, and irresistible, is the Philips CD of Guillou's transcriptions
for solo organ of Mussorgsky's Pictures from an Exhibition, and for
four hands and four feet at two consoles of the St Eustache organ of
Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances Op. 45, an overwhelming tour de force
(Philips 462 776-2, with Yanka Hekimova in the loft and Guillou himself at
the other console down in the nave). I should love to have heard that live!
Jean Guillou has been for me a great discovery and, with his very dramatic
music and its innovative harmony and registrations, he seems to be possibly
the most original and important of all organist composers of the next generation
after Messiaen. His neglect in UK inexplicable, and he is not a composer
to be relegated to the organ loft ghetto.Do explore Jean Guillou through
his CDs, or if you get to Paris by hearing him at St Eustache.
Improvisations on Christmas
Carols; Improvisations on a theme of Purcell and
Peter Grahame Woolf