Paul Dukas, of "The Sorceror's Apprentice" fame, was one of the finest composition tutors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Amongst his pupils were three significant organists: Messiaen - who is now seen as one of the most influential figures of the entire twentieth century; Langlais - who has become somewhat less prominent than Messiaen but was certainly no less important as a composer; and Alain - equally promising as a composer, but killed during military service in 1940 by a Nazi bomb blast. He was just 29 years of age. It could be said of that tragedy that it robbed us of a great twentieth century composer. However, Alain lived and worked long enough to produce a large corpus of organ music, remarkably mature in style and full of contrasts, and as this two-disc series shows, though his life was cut so brutally short, it was by no means a waste of life. That Alain shared a class with Messiaen and Langlais seems clear to me on listening to some of the music in this volume. The special harmonic techniques and exotic interests of Messiaen might perhaps be detected in "Le Jardin suspendu" or "Deux Danses a Agni Yavishta" (the first of which is barely a minute long); "Litanies" (one of his better known legacies) and "Variations sur un theme de Clement Janequin" bear testimony to an interest in ancient French musical ideas and traditions, shared by Langlais. Like both, Alain seems to have inherited a strong gift for melody and how best to accompany it; witness the simply delicious "Petite Piece" (track 2), the more extended "Deuxieme Fantasie" or the chorales "Cistercian" and "Phrygien," exquisitely crafted miniatures that harbour some truly innovate musical thinking behind their seemingly pedestrian titles. Alain was obviously a man of clear religious conviction, yet in writing for organ he also catered for the more secular side of performing, as can be seen in the "Deux Preludes Profanes," "Ballade en mode Phrygien" which is derived, Langlais-esque, from Gregorian chant and is thus on the cusp between liturgical and non-liturgical music, or the three-movement "Suite" that closes this programme. This is music of great quality: well formed, interesting and deserving of a wide audience. Here, it is beautifully performed by Eric Lebrun, himself a pupil of the composer's organ-playing relative, Marie-Claire Alain. Seated at a genuine French Cavaille-Coll organ - the type of instrument for which the music for written - he delivers a beautiful performance: sensitive, brilliantly accurate and wholly communicative. With the Naxos budget price, this disc is certainly hard to resist, particularly for organists like myself! A thoroughly enjoyable, wholeheartedly recommended CD! Let's hope that it (and its companion volume) will serve to redress the neglect suffered by this music, and this composer, amongst various circles of music-making.
The death of Jehan-Ariste Alain, like all of the deaths caused by WWII, was a tragic, senseless one. A mere 29 years of age, Alain was quickly becoming a prominant composer of amazing versitility and life. One can only speculate what wonders he would have composed had be survived the dreaded war, but the output that we do have proves that he had extraordinary talent. One of 2 volumes of his work released by the Naxos label, Vol. 1 showcases Alain's powerfully distinctive voice in a number of distinct formats, ranging from the one minute "le Jardin Suspendu," complete with an exotic atmosphere akin to contemporary Olivier Messiaen, the wonderfully precocious "Petite Piece," and his best known piece, "Litanies." To me, it is is the fantastic organ playing of Eric Lebrun that brings Alain's already amazing pieces to greater life. His choice of the Cavaille-Coll organ of the Church of St-Antoine des Quinze-Vingts in Paris was the ideal one for these pieces. Alain meant for his pieces to be played on just such an organ, so one can hear the majesty of Alain and the organ mingling beautifully, with the highly competent Lebrun in command. There is no doubt that Lebrun is attuned to what Alain meant for the pieces to sound like. Listen to his rendition of the Gregorian-esque "Ballade en Mode Phrygien" and feel the shivers go down your spine. The 2 cd set is a masterful look at one of the greatest 20th century composers that should have been, and with it being a Naxos release, the price is never a factor. Invest the few dollars and hear one of the great lps of organ music you will likely ever hear. It is well worth it.