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Christina Linklater
Notes: Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association, March 2010

Despite the expansive title of the series to which it belongs, The Modern Age is a focused, concentrated film. In just under an hour, it surveys repertoire and instruments in Europe from the Romantic era through the early twentieth century, with seven works played from beginning to end by three organists on four French, Swiss, and Italian organs. Although the film was released in 1997, the most recent work included is Jehan Alain’s Litanies, composed sixty years earlier. The film includes several informal interviews conducted in French (German, English, and Spanish soundtracks are available); the last of these conversations, with Marie-Claire Alain, is nearly ten minutes long.

The three previous films in the History of the Organ series were devoted to the organ’s classical origins, its use in the early Baroque era, and its full flowering in the later Baroque. This last film in the series likewise covers a brief, fertile moment in the long story of the organ. It was in the nineteenth century that organ music evolved well beyond its liturgical role into a concert medium for which organs were equipped with an ever-increasing range of timbres; in the twentieth century, the organ blossomed into an instrument with an astonishing versatility of design and repertoire.

Those new sounds are thoroughly illustrated here. René Saorgin, for instance, performs “music in the style of a military band” (the title and composer are not identified) on an 1847 Giuseppe Serassi organ in Corsica. Saorgin deploys so-called picturesque stops which are not just named after percussion instruments but actually deploy tiny bells and timpani, on which the camera is trained—even the organist would have difficulty seeing these stops in action, and the director makes ingenious use of a crane to show the insides of the organ chest at work. The lively playing of Saorgin contrasts sharply with Marie-Claire Alain’s high conservatory style. She performs on the Aristide Cavaillé-Coll instrument at the Hofkirche in Lucerne, Switzerland. Inter - preting works by Olivier Messiaen and by her brother, Jehan Alain, with crisp articulation and sober rhythmic accuracy, Marie-Claire Alain amply demonstrates the wide range of reeds and flutes for which Cavaillé-Coll organs are known. A third recitalist, Louis Robillard, speaks little and delivers Charles-Marie Widor’s “Toccata,” the Finale from the Fifth Symphony, with brisk flair.

There are no extra features at all on this DVD. However, a fascinating essay by Maria Walburga Stürzer is included with the insert. Stürzer covers several exciting developments not addressed in the film, such as the research of Albert Schweitzer, the use of digital techniques in new music (comthat monplace well before 1997), and the aesthetics of organ music in sacred versus secular contexts.

The Modern Age could have been enriched by the inclusion of more experimental repertoire, such as the György Ligeti and John Cage referenced by Stürzer’s essay, but here at least is an absorbing examination of a small yet highly significant area of the organ’s vast sphere.

Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, May 2009

The history of the organ (Latin Origins, 102111; From Sweelinck to Bach, 102113; Golden Age, 102151; Modern Age, 102153) is fascinating, with the most time devoted to performances (by top-flight organists, including Gustav Leonhardt and Marie-Claire Alain) on organs of the various periods covered, by important composers for the instrument: Attaignant, Cabezón, Frescobaldi, Correa, Couperin, Grigny, Daquin, Sweelinck, Buxtehude, Weckmann, Bach, Marchand, Dandrieu, Gherardeschi, Guilmant, Reger, Franck, Messiaen, Widor, Alain.

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