“JEHAN ALAIN: Jardin Suspendu” = Deuxième Fantaisie; Trois Mouvements for flute and organ; Suite; Deux Danses a Agni Yavishta; Première Fantaisie; Variations sur un thème de Clément Jannequin; Le Jardin suspendu; Litanies – Yoann Tardivel, organ/ Marion Ralincourt, flute – Hortus 092, 61:12 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
Lovers of French organ music will know the tragic story of Jehan Alain, older brother of celebrated organist Marie-Claire Alain. In June 1940, at the start of World War II, Alain was serving as a dispatch rider for the French army. He encountered a German patrol near the city of Saumur in western France and managed to hold them off, killing a number of the enemy before he was shot dead. Recognizing the heroic nature of his action, the Germans buried Alain with full military honors. Jehan Alain was twenty-nine; so ended a brilliant composing and performing career, but not before he had managed at this young an age to write many compositions for his instrument, a number of which today are repertory standards.
Alain studied organ with Marcel Dupré and composition with Paul Dukas, which accounts not only for his universally idiomatic writing for the instrument but for his scrupulous craftsmanship. His music was influenced by Debussy and by the young Olivier Messiaen, who was similarly influenced by Alain, and they shared (along with Debussy) a passion for things Eastern, especially its music. Like Debussy, who was bowled over by the gamelan playing at the Exposition Universale more than forty years earlier, Alain was enthralled by the experience of Eastern culture at the Exposition coloniale internationale in 1931, and Eastern influences colored his music thereafter.
The most immediate example on the current disc is Duex Danses a Agni Yavishta of 1932. Agni Yavishta is the Vedic god of fire; Alain supplies music that dances with a primitive gait and modality, even if it isn’t especially fiery. The piece has an Eastern sound to it, certainly, though you would be hard pressed to place it in any specific locale, especially India, given what we in the West hear from Indian musicians both classical and popular.
Le Jardin suspendu looks east as well, though not quite as far, in recalling the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Equally exotic, the piece has the air of “suspension,” of stasis, and seems to hang in the air, poised like the very gardens themselves. It’s beautifully sustained music that invites contemplation among listeners thus inclined.
If your inclinations run more toward the dramatic and declamatory, there’s that here, too, although not in such great supply. But Litanies of 1937 will surely fill the bill. I recently heard this played at a church in Atlanta that has a grand old organ, and to hear the big pipes in the back gallery holding forth was a wonderful experience in analog surround-sound. Yoann Tardivel’s performance of the piece is almost as exciting as what I heard in Atlanta and very well captured in sound—though, alas, not surround sound.
If your tastes run more toward the pastoral as fancied by the Impressionists, such as Debussy in his Prélude à l’aprèmidi d’un faune, that’s here as well, in the beautifully poised Trois Mouvements, to which flutist Marion Ralincourt lends her good offices. This is one of my favorite pieces on the disc. But I’m glad also for the inclusion of the two fantasies (1933 and 1935), which despite their coruscating chromaticism sound somewhat more traditional, in the vein of Franck and early Dupré (but with a bit of Messiaen thrown in for good measure).
There may, indeed, be a little more of the static than of the dynamic in the music on this disc, but that’s OK, too, if you’re in a certain mood, isn’t it? I find Professor Yann Tardivel of the Brussels Conservatory, playing the 1929 organ of Saint-Jacques de Dieppe, a very good guide to all this music. The instrument seems just right for an early–twentieth century organ composer, and as I say, the sound recording is very well done. As a one-volume introduction to the music of Jehan Alain, then, this disc is quite recommendable.