Tuesday, December 17, 2002


Performer: Kevin Bowyer
Label: Nimbus
Catalogue Number: NI55512
Released: 21 April, 1998

Jehan Alain is perhaps best known for his ostinato, invocational miniature ‘Litanies’, which remains (along with Messaien’s sublime ‘Le Banquet Celeste’) one of my favourite devotional organ pieces. Its intense, syncopated repetitions on a liturgical fragment are by turns meditative and ecstatic: ‘Litanies’ is simultaneously a work of simplicity and sophistication.

In his tragically short life (he was killed at the age of 29 during the second world war, in 1940) Alain composed some 34 organ works. They were published posthumously in three volumes, along with a further two volumes of piano works. Aside from this Nimbus collection, two separate discs were issued in the 1990s by Naxos.

Jehan Alain was a pupil of Dupree and a contemporary of Debussy, Dukas, Faure and Ravel. His harmonic language reflects the prevailing French musical scene of the time, but also a good deal of un-pompous individual flare and, in ‘Trois Danses’, the influences of family friend Andre Marchal, who was organist at the Paris church of Saint-Germain-des-Pres.
These performances by Kevin Bowyer (who has also completed a J. S. Bach cycle, works by Schoenberg and Brahms, and a fine collection of organ pieces by Peter Maxwell Davies, Jonathan Harvey and Malcolm Williamson – Nimbus 5509) were recorded in June-July 1997 at the restored Marcussen organ in the Chapel of St Augustine, Tonbridge School, England.

The playing is wonderful and the recording highly skilled, but I confess to a bias towards performances of Alain’s music on less boxy instruments with a slightly flatter acoustic. The expansive chordal developments of his compositions are often complemented by subtle, angular details in alternate registers, and this delicate blend can be smudged by too round an ambience or too florid an instrumentation.

I realise that these are subjective preferences, and no doubt specialists in French organ music will tell me that I am wrong. (I also locate myself on what is today regarded as the ‘wrong’ side of parallel arguments concerning the ‘authentic’ performance of the Handel organ concertos, where I think the Karl Richter got it absolutely right for the scale of these pieces, for example.) Perhaps it is all really to do with intimacy. There is a fragility, a vulnerability, but also an unaffected, quiet certainty to Alain’s works that can all-too-easily be lost by over-performance or too large a sound. For me, though it is difficult to choose, Bowyer is a slightly better interpreter than Eric Lebrun on the Naxos set. But the dynamic and acoustic is not always quite as it should be.

Quibbling aside, though, this is a fine recent account of Alain’s somewhat overlooked organ cycle. I hesitate to use the word ‘complete’, since he would undoubtedly have gone on to even greater things if he had lived longer; but these pieces certainly constitute a true and faithful account of his work.

Marie-Claire Alain, the renowned organist and young sister of Jehan, has recorded what will probably, for historical reasons, remain the definitive performances of his works. She has also penned his biography*. I nonetheless look forward to further interpretations in different settings. Meanwhile, and in spite of a rather personal caveat, I have little hesitation in commending the Nimbus recording as the best available. The eleven pages of notes by Felix Aprahamian are concise and very illuminating.

Jehan Alain is definitely a composer who deserves more attention and recognition outside the circles of the cognoscenti. Treat yourself if you do not already know him.

* Check out the Erato boxed tribute. Her Jehan Alain set is only available on vinyl.

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