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JEAN GUILLOU in Paris and on CD

Until a recent weekend in Paris Jean Guillou was known to me somewhat vaguely as a veteran organist of distinction, and I accordingly took the opportunity to hear him give a recital at Saint Eustache, where he has been titular organist for many years. He began with Haydn's pieces for a musical clock and the vivacity of his playing and witty, modern interpretation of these simple tunes made an immediate impression. He followed with his own innocently titled Scenes of Childhood, which took me aback. Quite other than the idealised childhood generally represented in music, it transpired to have been inspired by Henry James The Turn of the Screw, upon which Britten's haunting and disturbing opera is also based. Guillou's final improvisation was so dramatic and dissonant that people who had not known what to expect quickly began to leave.

In Paris I bought Guillou's CD with Scenes d'enfants and two others of his compositions, 18 Variations Op 3 and Six Sagas, three of them re-worked improvisations (Philips 456 512-2). In the Sagas can be heard dreams, ancient chant, a frenetic dance "interrupted by exasperated harshness"and a lyrical tale punctuated by a "destructive outburst resolved with the memory of great danger overcome".

Exploring later some more of his Philips CDs, celebrated with awards by Diapaison, France's equivalent to The Gramophone, I learned that he is first and foremost a composer who has pushed back technical limits of his instrument to secretly develop a singular musical world, overshadowed by his fame as a performer.

Guillou is at an opposite pole to his internationally more famous contemporary, the contemplative Messiaen, who celebrated his devout religious belief in everything he composed in music which is often passive and never goal oriented. Guillou offers instead dramatic gestures and fantastical poetic images, inventing the dramatic organ, divorced from all its associations as a religious instrument. He is an organ polymath, writer, teacher and organ desgner credited with imposing a new individuality upon the organ of the twentieth century.

Guillou has a special interest in exploring association of the organ with other instruments. In the Philips collection there is a Fantasie Concertante with 'cello (Alexander Kniasev) on 362 774-2; a Gerald Manley Hopkins setting Andromeda with soprano (Kioko Okada) on 456 513-2 and a reciter (Francois Castang) in Alice au pays de l'orgue on 456 511-2, a Young Person's Guide to the Organ in which Lewis Carroll's Alice is imagined going back through her looking-glass again into a world of dancing flutes, grumpy bourdons, pedantic bombards, harsh cromornes and craggy rankets! I found all these CDs captivating and they have been played several times over with continung pleasure.

No less interesting are Jean Guillou's CDs of other repertoire. Bach Toccatas (Pierre Verany PV 730001) has the clarity and verve characteristic of all his playing. There is air in the texture which makes it easy to hear the counterpoint.

Liszt, played on a Kleuker organ at Alpe d'Huez and a Marcussen in Rotterdam, has similar qualities which command respect and give great pleasure. This well balanced programme includes the Ad no, ad salutarem Fantasia and Fugue and a syncretic version of the Pelude and Fugue on B.A.C.H., together with Guillou's own entirely convincingtranscriptions for organ of orchestral symphonic poems, Orpheus and Prometheus. Guillou succeeds in his aim to enrich Liszt's contrapuntal work and seeks to enrich the borders of the instrument's "requirements and possibilities" (Festivo FECD 123).

There is a whole CD of improvisations, six broadcast live on themes chosen by listeners to three French radio stations, and Visions Cosmiques dedicated to the Apollo 8 mission (Philips 446 644-2).

Most astonishing, and irresistible, is the Philips CD of Guillou's transcriptions for solo organ of Mussorgsky's Pictures from an Exhibition, and for four hands and four feet at two consoles of the St Eustache organ of Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances Op. 45, an overwhelming tour de force (Philips 462 776-2, with Yanka Hekimova in the loft and Guillou himself at the other console down in the nave). I should love to have heard that live!

Jean Guillou has been for me a great discovery and, with his very dramatic music and its innovative harmony and registrations, he seems to be possibly the most original and important of all organist composers of the next generation after Messiaen. His neglect in UK inexplicable, and he is not a composer to be relegated to the organ loft ghetto.Do explore Jean Guillou through his CDs, or if you get to Paris by hearing him at St Eustache.

See also Jean GUILLOU Improvisations on Christmas Carols; Improvisations on a theme of Purcell and Sinfonietta


Peter Grahame Woolf


Peter Grahame Woolf

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