Until recently there was little available on disc of the music of Jehan Titelouze. Organist of Rouen cathedral from 1588 to 1633, and commonly regarded as the founder of the French organ school, his music is pioneering, inventive and magnificent. But now - all of a sudden, or so it seems - we have two superb recordings of the twelve Hymnes de l'Église: a very fine two-disc set by Yves-G. Préfontaine Veni creator: Verset 1 (follow link to CD version), and the present set from Markus Goecke. And all this in addition to Robert Bates' splendid collection including all of the composer's Hymn and Magnificat settings Complete Organ Works of Jean Titelouze.
The twelve hymn settings, 'Hymnes de l'Église pour toucher sur l'orgue, avec les fugues et recherches sur leur plain-chant', each consist of 4-voice variations on Gregorian hymns, in three or four organ verses. In each case the first verse is based upon a statement of the hymn melody in long notes overlaid by polyphonic treatments of varying complexity; the last verse, typically fugal in character, is generally the most complex, with brilliant and highly developed counterpoint. On these two discs, the organ verses are interspersed with sung versions of their respective hymns - a point which I'll return to in a moment.
Markus Goecke plays the early baroque organ of the church of Saint-Michel in Bolbec, Normandy, originally built by Guillaume Lesselier (Scots-born William Leslie) in 1630, modified and enlarged a few times since then, and superbly restored in 1997 by Bertrand Cattiaux. It's the same instrument as that chosen by Robert Bates for his complete Titelouze survey and again it sounds magnificent, brilliantly suited to this music and recorded here with splendid realism. These hymn settings are music of genius, austerity, poetry and profundity; and Markus Goecke, more than any other player I have yet heard, expresses these qualities magnificently. His style and technique are impeccable, his vision of the music both soulful and elegant, and his embellishments spot-on.
To mention just a few remarkable moments: the majestic rhythms of the opening verse of 'Ad coenam Agni providi' (CDI, track 1), setting the tone of the collection most beautifully; the lyrical beauty of the inner verses such as the second verse of 'Pange lingua' (I/18) or that of 'Ave maris stella' (I/29); and the striking rhythmical treatment of the opening verses of 'Ut queant laxis' (I/22) or 'Ave maris stella' (I/27). In fact, the whole of 'Ave maris stella' forms a splendid sequence, culminating in the superb polyphony of its concluding verse (I/33). My personal favourite, however, is the setting of 'Exultet coelum laudibus' (II/7-12), which for me is an absolute masterpiece. Its final organ verse is a stunning contrapuntal tour de force, played here to perfection by Markus Goecke, with the heightened urgency he applies from the halfway point a master stroke in itself (II/11). Organ enthusiasts, do yourselves a favour and don't miss out on these four minutes of magic!
I mentioned that the organ verses are interspersed with chanted versions of the hymn texts, here performed by the four male voices of Vox Resonat directed by Eric Mentzel. Unlike the rather artificial manner of the procedure in Préfontaine's recording, this works extremely well here. The singing sounds natural and the continuity of pace between organ and voices is just right. In fact, the sung verses alternate with organ verses throughout, and all the texts are given in the booklet including those verses not sung but set to the organ by Titelouze. Both programme and booklet are extremely well organised, and the organ's specifications and the registrations for each verse are all listed. The booklet notes, and translations of the Latin texts, are in English and German.
Since the content of this set corresponds directly with that of Préfontaine, a comparison is hard to avoid. Both organists are superb musicians, and I would say that their different approaches to Titelouze are complementary in revealing the various facets of this composer's singular genius. Yves-G. Préfontaine is particularly successful in conveying the colour, drama, flamboyance and originality of Titelouze's fabulous hymn settings. Markus Goecke, for his part, expresses their gravity, subtlety, clarity, elegant beauty and sheer profundity. For me, Goecke penetrates to the very heart of this music, and in doing so he reaches deep into the listener's soul as well. I'm very grateful to have both of these versions, but if I had to choose one it would be Markus Goecke.
Finally, many thanks to fellow reviewers Gérard Begni and Nicolas for drawing my attention to the music of this fascinating composer through their excellent reviews on the French Amazon site.