, March 2006
"There are two things to say straightaway about this recording. Firstly it has a fantastic sound with some really neat playing on a fine organ. But secondly it is sad that Naxos does not see this as an opportunity for doing a Guilmant `series' as they did for Marcel Dupr‚ and appear to be doing for Reger and Rheinberger. I can only presume this to be the case as they have not chosen to call the release `Volume 1'and they have included two movements drawn from the composer's eight organ sonatas - which may imply that they do not intend to issue them in their entirety.
A brief look at the excellent Guilmant Web Page reveals a considerable number of recordings of this composer's works, including two that appear to be `complete' editions. I have long enjoyed the Sonatas played by Ben van Oosten on the Cavaill‚-Coll organ in the glise Abbatiale de Saint-Ouen, Rouen. And of course there is the 9 CD Motette series which I have not yet heard. This particular version appears to cover all or most of Guilmant's published works for the organ.
I suppose that when I heard the rumour of a Guilmant CD from Naxos I imagined a new edition of this great cycle of organ music, especially the Sonatas - and played on a large Canadian organ too! But who knows what the future holds?
The Grand Chorus in G minor, Op. 84 is a good going piece and a worthy opening number to this recital. It is one of a number of such works that Guilmant wrote for `big' occasions - both liturgical and state. There is a great `heavy reed' solo in the closing bars of this impressive work.
The Caprice in B flat major, Op. 20, No. 3 is one of many salon style pieces in the composer's oeuvre. In some ways it has a `theatre organ' sound - but whether this is the piece's style or the organist's registration it is hard to tell. The work has some interesting and quite intricate fingerwork and exploits dexterous changes between manuals. The easy-going feel belies its technical complexity.
The Allegretto in B minor, Op. 19, No. 1 is a wistful little piece. Formally it is really a duet between the ‘oboe’ and the ‘clarinet.’ It is an attractive work, but maybe lacking in distinction.
Perhaps the most important work on this CD is the Lamentation in D minor Op. 45 No.1. This is certainly the longest work here and by far the most profound. It is dedicated to the composer’s great friend Abbé Henri Gros who was killed in the bombardment of Paris in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. This is a deeply moving work and in its own way quite stunning.
The long slow introduction builds up into a huge climax before subsiding into a peaceful and satisfying close. Guilmant makes use of Gregorian chant in this work to derive his theme – presumably in honour of his friend the Abbé. It is perhaps the finest and most impressive work on this CD.
The Offertoire sur O filii pour la fête de Pâques, Op. 49, No. 2 is an attractive set of variations – with a twist. The work opens and closes with toccata-like figurations but the variations proper are contrived as the ‘middle section’. This is a fine recital piece – and perhaps an excellent encore.
The most forward-looking piece on this CD is the Lento Assai (Rêve) from the late Seventh Organ Sonata Op.89. Here Guilmant, perhaps uncharacteristically, uses ‘whole tone’ harmonies to create this ‘dreamlike’ music. This may well have been in honour of Debussy – a composer who Guilmant much admired. The work is literally ‘dreamy’ with lovely use of the ‘string’ stops to give the atmospherics. This is ‘romantic’ organ music at its very best.
For the next number, March on a Theme by Handel, Op. 15, No. 2, the composer turned to the pages of the Messiah to extract the tune ‘Lift Up Your Heads’ . It is a well wrought ‘march’ which includes a fugue and is completed with a huge presentation of the Handelian theme. A real show-stopper – ideal for the ‘Monday Pops’!
The Scherzo Symphonique in C major Op.55 is a work of epic proportions. It is not a classical scherzo as such but actually a rondo. From the very first note to the last there is a huge amount of energy in this work. It is one of the greatest and most accomplished pieces on this CD.
The Noël languedocien, Communion No. 2 in F minor, Op. 60 is one of a number of Christmas Carol arrangements that Guilmant wrote in the 1880s. In itself it is perhaps an unexceptional work – but on second hearing I concluded that it is the ideal piece to hear whilst sitting waiting for the Midnight Mass to commence. This is expressive music calculated to warm the heart and suffuse the soul with devotion.
Of course the recital has to end with a barnstormer – and the Finale of the well known and well loved Sonata No.1 in D minor Op. 42 fits the bill: it is a regular war-horse. Luckily listeners have the privilege of knowing this piece in both the solo and the concerted versions. But here, in its original incarnation it is well played and enthusiastically closes this interesting and varied programme. Look out for the ‘heavy reed’ stops at the very close.
One little detail that did disappoint me was the works’ dates. A friend of mine has often complained that her eyesight condition prevents her from reading some of the close written text that Naxos use for their usually excellent programme notes. In this CD most – but not all - of the dates of the works are hidden away in the small text. It took me, with reasonable eyesight, some time to extract the information for this review. What my friend would like, and I agree with her, is to always ensure that the dates (where known) are put on the track-listing in readable text!
That being said the sleeve-notes are excellent and a ‘part’ specification of the organ is given. This information is so important for the organ enthusiast – in fact I know an organ ‘buff’ who will not listen to a CD if he does not have the ‘spec’ in front of him. For the record this present organ is a reasonably large four manual instrument with a separate ‘nave organ’. The pedal department is extensive and includes three 32ft stops – however the ‘Contra Trombone’ is a digital stop - presumably saving a lot of money and space! It is a pity that Naxos could not have given details of couplers, pistons and action as this is incredibly important to many potential listeners!
Altogether this makes a fine introduction to the world of Alexandre Guilmant. Yet I do wonder who it is aimed at? Most organ music enthusiasts will have some, if not all of this music on other recordings – perhaps played on Cavaillé-Coll instruments. It is unlikely that someone will just pick up this CD on a whim – Classic FM are not noted for introducing the ‘classical’ public to this kind of music. So I imagine it will be the ‘completist’ who needs to have all recordings of everything that Guilmant wrote, or perhaps those people who admire the Canadian organ builder Casavant over and above other manufacturers. Yet these individuals must be few and far between ...
Robert Delcamp is Professor of Music and University Organist at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee. This is Professor Delcamp's fifth CD for the Naxos label which includes works by Saint-Saëns and Marcel Dupré. He is well able to capture the essence of the ‘French’ style on this North American organ and one looks forward to more releases both on this instrument and by this performer.
This is a great addition to the ever increasing library of organ music available at reasonable price and excellent quality on Naxos. For that reason alone I imagine many people could be tempted to add it their collection."