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The late André Isoir, among his many musical testaments, leftus a complete Bach cycle, recorded for Calliope between 1975 and 1991 with the toccatas re-recorded in 1993. While the present re-release on 17 CDs gives us the opportunity to reconsider these performances, it would be folly to judge them in the context of today’s Bach interpretations; by now they are, definitively, ‘historic’. More valuable insights can be gained by considering Isoir in the context of his background, the zeitgeist of the era in which the recordings were made, and the Bach recordings of other French organists of the time.

And that time was, of course, a turbulent one. Isoir, like Marie-Claire Alain and Michel Chapuis, emerged from the Paris Conservatoire culture of Marcel Dupré (in Isoir’s case via Rolande Falcinelli) just as the purported line of succession from Bach that tradition represented was being questioned. In addition, Isoir, like Chapuis, had studied first at the École César Franck with the influential Édouard Souberbielle, whose own particular interest in earlier repertoire had been propagated by Joseph Bonnet. Unsurprising then that extended listening to Isoir’s Bach playing, like that of many others of the time, reveals reactionary (rather than evolutionary) tendencies in the first instance. I sense a strong urge to branch out in a personal direction offset by the status of ‘virtuoso’ bestowed upon Paris Conservatoire Premier Prix winners, then as now. The music-making is gregarious; quick (occasionally to the brink of unstable), extrovert and sometimes expansively ornamented. In the later recordings in particular there is a greater sense of rebellion against the Dupré aesthetic than one hears in Marie-Claire Alain’s earliest Bach recordings, made when Dupré himself was still alive. Isoir’s articulation, for example, is far more active in the smaller note values than in the longer ones, whereas if one were more inclined to hang one’s articulation around a framework of beat structure and rhetoric, the result might well be the polar opposite, not least to mitigate the ever-present risk of over-accenting. At its most carefree, Isoir’s accenting can seem slightly chaotic (the little four-note repeated figure in the first movement of BWV 593 continually stresses the final quaver, for example). In terms of registration, certain habits are noteworthy and entirely typical of the time: the preponderance of mutations, rather than reeds, in solo lines; of gap registrations, often with a principal-scale mutations, in anything monophonic (the opening of BWV 533, 535 564, 572) as well as in the outer movements of the trio sonatas; the frequent changing of manuals in ‘plenum’ pieces (the heyday of the ‘secondary chorus’) and the pedal reed’s lingering role as a ‘climactic’ stop (Anches Pédale!) rather than as a counterweight to the often very lively upperwork. This frequently has consequences for the balance; the pedal can seem muddy and distant.

The ghost of Dupré occasionally peeks out from behind the curtain nevertheless. The solo lines in BWV 590/iii or BWV 564/ii, for example, are played almost über-legato and with barely a breath. The opening of the Canzona, for all the chiffand tremulant, is played almost completely legato, heels a-plenty in the pedal, the slower movements of the trio sonatas likewise. But there is a highly individual streak which keeps Isoir’s listeners, even today, firmly in check. Why not get faster at the end of BWV 549 or BWV 566? Why not cancel Bach’s own natural signs raising the B flat in the melody of ‘Lob sei dem allmächtigen Gott’ BWV 602? Why not repeat the Aufgesang of ‘Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich’ BWV 605, an octave lower? Why not add a continuo part to BWV 645 (like Chapuis) or divide the ritornello of BWV 650 between several different ‘instruments’?

Isoir’s choice of organs is likewise somewhat idiosyncratic. All by German builders, these include the spiky, and not overly attractive, 1970s Westenfelder in Esch-sur-Alzette; the more cohesive, Isoir- designed Grenzing in Saint-Cyprien en Périgord; and, especially interesting, the early Ahrend organs in Aurich (1956, a telling contrast to the dominant Danish aesthetic of the time) and Frankfurt (1975). The one historic organ, perplexingly, is Gabler’s rococo masterpiece in Weingarten on which Bach’s music was impossible until Kuhn’s extension of the pedal compass in 1983. This organ is so completely different in style and playing experience as to oblige Isoir to adapt his way of playing considerably; it inspires some of his most considered playing, and a somewhat different approach to registration, with manual reeds more frequently to the fore.

For the record, Isoir’s ‘complete’ cycle has the added bonus of a 1999 recording of the Art of Fugue but only a fraction of the Neumeister chorales. As a whole, these recordings bear witness to the brilliance of a distinctive and individual musician, and the relatively low price renders this an attractive purchase for anyone interested in the impartial study of the era in question.

CHRIS BRAGG Read the full review on Agora Classica

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