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Jean GUILLOU Improvisations on Christmas Carols; Improvisations on a theme of Purcell and Sinfonietta Jean Guillou (organ) .   Philips 454 654-2 [63.32]
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This is the first instalment of an ongoing study for MotW's composer pages and CD reviews. Jean Guillou is a virtuoso organist and composer, who is described as having 'pushed back the technical limits of his instrument to secretly develop a singular musical world, overshadowed by his fame as a performer'.

I heard him play and improvise in Paris in the summer, and have since begun to explore deeply his music and recordings. He stands at an opposite pole to the more contemplative Messiaen, who celebrated his religious devotion 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 gave the British premiere of the famous Reubke sonata long ago, and it is a mystery why he remains so little known in this country as composer or recitalist.

This is a CD to consider for Christmas. Guillou's treatment of six well-known Christmas carols is imaginative and far ranging. His harmonic language is moderately advanced, but perfectly accessible. The Purcell Improvisations, on the theme so familiar in UK from Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, is a tour de force. By way of diversion, the Philips artistic director dictated the theme to Guillou at the end of a recording session. He improvised immediately this 20-minute organ symphony! It wears well, perpetuated in a CD format not yet imagined at the time when the microphones caught the moment of creation; something more familiar in the world of jazz.

Guillou's Sinfonietta (1963) is a fully composed published work, in three well-contrasted movements. The first allegretto develops four contrasting motives, followed by an intimate andante and a final allegro giocoso, which grows from a staccato, burlesque theme.

The notes are only in French. These analogue recordings, which date from the late '60s, sound fine in digital transfer thirty years on.

Peter Grahame Woolf


Peter Grahame Woolf

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