CD Review: Jean Guillou's Bach organ set is a box of vivid, dancing colours that's a bargain to boot
The Organ Works of Bach (Dorian)
*** 1/2 (out of 4)
This 6-CD box set is a compilation of recordings the Dorian label made in 1987 and 1990. (For more information, click on the disc image, left.)
If more organists played with the verve and imagination of Jean Guillou, the organ would be a much more popular concert instrument.
Nearly four decades ago, a new generation musicians playing period instruments extricated Bach's orchestral and vocal music from the slow, big, murky sound that the Victorians had bestowed. In the best cases, these new musicians made Bach's counterpoints dance with life.
Most organists, on the other hand, responded with quiet reverence, afraid to interfere with Bach's neatly arranged notes with too much gaudy colour.
But Jean Guillou -- who turns 80 in a couple of weeks -- is not most organists. First of all, he is a direct musical descendant of the greatest organist-composers of the 20th century. He landed his first organist's position when he was 12 and went on to study in Paris with Marcel Dupré, Maurice Duruflé and Olivier Messiaen.
Hearing Guillou play Bach is as much of a shock as when Dorothy opens the door to the colour-saturated Land of Oz. Typically, Guillou gives each voice a distinct sound on whichever organ he is playing on, further accentuating the details in the composer's musical architecture. The tempos are lively. The playing is finely articulated.
Five of the six discs are set up like concert programmes, mixing concert works with chorale preludes. There is variation in mood, sound and tempo, so you can listen without a break from beginning to end.
The 1987 recordings are at the hand-shaped organ, pictured right, found in Notre-Dame-des-Neiges (Our Lady of the Snows), high up in ski country in Alpe d'Huez, in France. The 1990 set is from the Tonhalle in Zurich, Switzerland.
The sixth disc is my favourite. It contains Guillou's own transcription of the Goldberg Variations. This is hardly music to snooze by, as the organist uses the trumpets quite a bit. There isn't a dull moment from beginning to end.
I think Guillou sometimes goes a bit overboard with his choice of sounds (registration) on the organ, but I can't help but admire what he does.
(This Goldberg disc should still be available as a single CD.)
Guillou has been the titular organist at Saint-Eustache church in central Paris since 1963. The building itself is gorgeous and hosts regular concerts throughout the year, including the summer months. As the Michelin guide would say, it's worth a detour. (Guillou played a recital of works by 19th century German composer-organist Julius Reubke last Sunday evening).
Here's an example of what I've been trying to say. The first clip of is of Lebanon-based organist Setrak Setrakian playing the Aria and first two Goldberg Variations (feel free to switch off at the first sign of ennui). Then try Maître Guillou's interpretation.
Here is Guillou. The first clip is of the Aria and Variation I. Variations II to IX follow:
In case you have time, interest and can understand French, here is Guillou giving us a fabulous, improvised tour of the Saint-Eustache organ, using "A la claire fontaine" as guide: