“Joys, Mournings, and Battles: Music of DURUFLÉ AND ALAIN” = MAURICE DURUFLÉ: Suite; Prelude and Fugue on the Name of A.L.A.I.N.; JEHAN ALAIN: Three Dances – Christopher Houlihan, organ – Towerhill

by | Feb 9, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

“Joys, Mournings, and Battles: Music of DURUFLÉ AND ALAIN” = MAURICE DURUFLÉ: Suite; Prelude and Fugue on the Name of A.L.A.I.N.; JEHAN ALAIN: Three Dances – Christopher Houlihan, organ – Towerhill TH-72025, 63:45 [webmail@towerhill-recordings.com] ****:

Neither Maurice Duruflé nor Jehan Alain produced a large oeuvre, Duruflé because of his highly self-critical nature, Alain because of his tragically early death. Since I naturally think in terms of recordings, I summarize the situation thusly: Duruflé’s complete organ music can fit handily on one CD, Alain’s on two. The present Towerhill disc gives us some of the most important works of both composers, in the case of Alain, his last organ composition. He finished it just before his death in 1940 and did not live to hear it performed.

Alain was serving in the French army during the completion of his Three Dances. Acting as a dispatch rider, 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.

The Three Dances were originally conceived as a piece for orchestra though Alain did not complete the orchestration before his death. As transcribed for organ, the work shows the progressiveness of his musical language, which incorporates Eastern musical influences and even jazz within a modernist framework. Olivier Messiaen, just three years Alain’s senior, was another important influence, which you can hear in some of the strange sonorities of The Three Dances. The influence of Eastern music is apparent in the exotic flavors and rhythms of the first dance, titled “Joys.” The second number, titled “Mournings,” is a “funeral dance” in the form of a sarabande, suggesting Alain’s interest in and debt to Baroque music. Appropriately and sadly, the last dance is “Battles.” It’s a musical contest between two competing themes that rises to a fever pitch in the last section of the piece, where the performer is enjoined to play “brutally.”

More contemplative and ruminative is the work that Duruflé wrote as a tribute to Alain two years later. It’s based on a musical translation of his last name, A.L.A.I.N. corresponding to the notes A, D, A, A, and E. The Prelude is a quietly jostling perpetual motion machine. The Fugue begins quietly as well but builds to a declamatory ending whose pomp recalls the grand utterances of French Romantics such as Widor and Vierne.

Finer still is Duruflé’s Suite of 1934, perhaps his best-known work for organ. It contrasts the dramatically charged, near-tragic Prelude with the light and lilting dance rhythms of the following Sicilienne and caps the whole with a brilliant Toccata which just about defines that musical term. Amazingly, the self-critical Duruflé was not pleased with this virtuoso showcase of a piece.

Christopher Houlihan obviously doesn’t share the composer’s reservations. He plays it with all the derring-do you expect from a performer whose youth embraces both passion and great technical facility. He can really fly over those keyboards and pedals with ease and grace. Yet Houlihan, who was studying at Juilliard under Paul Jacobs at the time of this recording, is clearly a musician of the first order as well. His command of the idiom of French organ music seems complete, especially for so young a player: he’s only twenty-three. This is actually Houlihan’s second recording, the first being a well-received recording of Vierne’s Second Organ Symphony. He’s clearly a performer to watch.

Houlihan plays the Rice Memorial Organ at All Saints Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, a 1933 Æolian-Skinner Opus 909 that is still undergoing a series of renovations. One of the renovations yet to be performed, apparently, is to the church itself: removing the sound-deadening material that was packed into the ceiling as a matter of course when organs of this type were installed back in the 30s. According to the recording notes, all the furniture was removed from the nave of the church to approximate this removal. The results seem to be an increased brightness to the tone of the instrument, at least in Towerhill’s impressively bright and forward recording. The deep bass is impressive as well, though perhaps not as profoundly rumbling and grumbling as with some instruments and/or recordings. Some listeners may prefer a bit of added depth as well, but I appreciate the clarity that Towerhill has achieved, without any of that nasty acoustic overhang you hear in many church settings.
Altogether, this is a fine showcase for both the performer and for a very attractive American organ with a French accent (thanks to its apparently rare French-style chorus reeds). As I say, stay tuned: Christopher Houlihan seems to be going places.

— Lee Passarella

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