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It is remarkable to note that whereas recordings of the complete organ works of Alain, Dupré and Messiaen (to name but three 20th-century giants) are commonplace, only once have the complete organ works of Jean Langlais been recorded. Encompassing 26 compact discs in 13 beautifully produced volumes, and accompanied by a handsome 150-page booklet, this set represents a monumental achievement – a 24-year labour of love for Ann Labounsky.

It is often said that Langlais composed too quickly and too much. His later music is sometimes dismissed as gloomy and austere. This collection, in my view, should go a long way to dispelling both those myths.

Dr Ann Labounsky is a professor of music at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She was a student of Langlais between 1962 and 1964, and the object of his affection for a while. In 1973 Langlais invited her to write his biography. Jean Langlais, The Man and His Music (Amadeus Press) was finally published in 2000 and, incidentally, makes an invaluable companion to these recordings. Few artists, therefore, are better placed than Labounsky to offer insight into the many moods and styles of this complex man.

The recordings were made between 1979 and 2003 for the Musical Heritage Society, originally at the request of the composer. Langlais planned and supervised the recording sessions until 1985 and forfeited half of his royalties to help the venture. The first five volumes were originally released on vinyl, then remastered onto CD, with subsequent volumes appearing during the 1990s. Completed in 2003, the cycle has now been reissued on Labounsky’s own label, Voix du Vent. Inevitably, perhaps, recording quality is variable, the first two CDs having originally been made on analogue tape. However, the digital remastering of these has been very successful. The rest are digital recordings, using different formats as the technology developed. Trois paraphases grégoriennes and Poèmes évangéliques feature twice (on vols. 1 and 13).

Seven organs from France and the USA were chosen, both for convenience and for their particular associations with the composer, who played all but one of them. They could be described as either ‘American classic’ or néo-classique in style, with the exception of the symphonic Cavaillé-Coll which Langlais played as a student (St-Antoine-des-Quinze-Vingts, Paris). The vivid personalities of the instruments match Langlais’s many moods well, and it is good to hear the two-organ works played in the venue for which they were composed (Angoulême), even though the orgue de choeur swims in the distance somewhat. Labounsky is joined by David Craighead for these six Esquisses.

Langlais’s vast output, together no doubt with a punishing rehearsing and recording schedule, must place huge demands on one interpreter. However, Labounsky’s virtuosity, authority and genuine affection for this music are very persuasive. Familiar early works, now cornerstones of the modern French repertoire, sound as fresh as the day they were written, while more esoteric, ‘difficult’ works have an elegance and warmth about them. There is much joy and wit too, from the effervescent Triptyque and jazzy Fête, to the tongue-in-cheek American Folk-Hymn Settings. Most impressively, Labounsky performs the chant-based music like a singer. This is rarely found in too many of today’s performers, who rattle through plainsong melodies with little understanding. Alas, it is difficult to ignore the age of some of the recordings: microphone placement does not always result in the clearest textures, and some of the edits are crude by modern standards.

Langlais’s organ music covers an enormous range of styles – post-Ravel, post-Vierne, neo-medieval, neo-classical, quasi-serial, to name but a few – yet every phrase bears his characteristic thumb- print, a remarkable achievement for any composer. Inevitably perhaps, with such diversity not every piece will win hearts. I wonder if the organ itself can sometimes be a stumbling block, especially in Langlais’s drier music. Such apparent coldness melts away when played by other instruments, and any listener serious about getting to know the composer should listen to the increasing number of recordings featuring his chamber, instrumental, vocal and choral works. While Langlais’s own fabulous organ recordings are obligatory listening, they represent only a tiny fraction of his output. Serious devotees of French music will want to add this historic anthology to their collection, and will delight in discovering the many new gems which each cleverly planned disc reveals.

IAN BALL Read the full review on Agora Classica

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