There is nothing more difficult than to write about music. Music should be listened to, but sometimes words when judiciously employed can and often help to understand what to expect from the dialogue than we assume prevails between the composer, the performer and the audience...which is, us.
In my humble opinion Marie-Claire Alain is at the present time the best organist in the world out of a very small group of no more than ten. In these performances, which are a welcome reissue of a 1977 analog recording, she had a her command a magnificent Cavaillé-Coll pipe organ built around 1880. This organ's home is the Eglisse de Saint-François de Sales, Lyon, France.
We should be aware that all these twelve organ pieces if executed just like César Franck (1822 - 1890) scored them, to be precise, all would have to be played at the Cavaillé-Coll organ of the Eglisse de Sainte-Clotilde in Paris; even the "Pièce héroique." The latter was to be played the first time at the Trocadéro's organ and then...well, it was scored for the organ of Sainte-Clotilde and still is.
Franck composed these monumental epoch making works for Sainte-Clotilde's organ; one with rather different characteristics if we compare it with most other "standard" Cavaillé-Coll organs. Sainte-Clotilde's organ is very much a Germanic type organ in the tradition of the Silbermann's.
Here Alain executes "ad libitum" in an organ which technically speaking is not exactly what Franck had in mind; however, Alain's organ has beautiful tonalities in the reed stops. In her expert hands (and feet) this organ becomes a very special instrument and she has no difficulty in obtaining all those psycho-acoustic effects Franck envisioned originally.
With these CDs Alain transports us into an emotionally charged spiritual experience with deeply moving performances. Alain's artistic conception has no equal anywhere and shows a very seldom obtained facet of Franck's compositions. To wit, that he was a keen and convinced student and follower of J.S. Bach in reference to organ composition.
Again, these performances were originally recorded in analog format in May 1976 and released in 1977 by the now defunct Erato label. The recording techniques utilized back then completely surpass today's totally digital recordings even considering the enormous technical cornucopia available to sound engineers. The sound is absolutely magnificent to the last nuance, most likely due to the "correct" placement and balance of the microphones used in the recording.
From the artistic point of view Alain goes right to the human heart, to the very soul of the listener and the spiritual self that resides in us all. She succeeds in her mission to such degree that, in this sense, this " IS " (my opinion) the reference perfomance for the ages. Her performance contains everything I am sure Franck wanted to convey in terms of expression and sensitivity that he as a human being was capable to express in musical form.
We should also listen to Alain's interpretations of Bach six Schlüber chorales for organ (BWV 645 - 650); we would find great parallels with these interpretations. This music is not baroque, nor romantic, nor post-romantic or conservatively formal but it has the potential to transport us into other dimensions where a marvelous encounter with a musician of the past is achieved.
What else can we say of Alain's performance? Can or should we talk about their overwhelming sobriety and serene beauty? Perhaps we should listen to these works and then go out and find a great cathedral, like Trinity Cathedral in my home town, to hear and ponder about what our own heart tells us and, if prepared, fly on the wings of our souls to that wondrous world where angels live.
For example, listen to Alain's interpretation of Franck's Choral No. 1 in E Major, written between August and September of 1890, and if in the process you don't find those angels I am afraid you never will. Incidentally, six weeks after his last revision of this work and also of Chorale 2 and 3 he died.
I think of Alain's perfomance as a gift to us all who live in this world (ca. 2006) with so many spiritual needs. This is music-making, one that asks us to abandon ourselves without reservations to the spiritual and passionate sweep of the music itself.
FINAL WORDS: In a very symbolic way I would like to say that Alain's interpretations present us with a tonal miracle, something ethereal and mystic. Indeed, I believe with these performances a new myth or legend might have been born. Myth...legend..."Das Organ mit Schatten." May we be reminded of Richard Strauss' opera with a somewhat similar name? What does it tell us?
After listening so many times to this recording I have to say this is the one and only CD I would take with me if I need to go to some island and be there forever and I would rather be alone there so not to have any distractions.
About this CD set: BUY IT. And make it two copies. Just in case, keep one in your safe.