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Dip Your Ears, No. 226 (Marie-Claire Alain's First Bach Cycle)

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J.S.Bach, Organ Works

Marie-Claire Alain (1926—2013) is the only organist to have recorded the complete* organ works of Bach’s trice and have all those cycles appear on CD. She didn’t live to see it (whereas Lionel Rogg, who has recorded three cycles but had only one appear on CD as of yet, still has chance, seeing that he is still very much alive). On the ionarts Bach Organ Cycle Survey, her Second (on three favorite organs of hers) and Third cycles (on historical instruments) are given a rare ionarts’ choice recommendation: The first for being an excellent introductory / generalist cycle and the second for being performed with the same consummate skill but with a more interesting, individualistic organ landscape. There’s something about French organists when they get it right in Bach: Sensuality married to structure. Other favorites of mine include André Isoir and Alain-student Olivier Vernet. (Equally, when they get it wrong, they can turn out the absolute worst in Bach… and by “they” I actually only mean the very recently deceased Jean Guillou – a genius on the instrument in so many ways – but a real-time train-wreck in Bach.)

Marie-Claire Alain’s first traversal doesn’t quite make my top-recommendation list but it is wonderful to have around for the completist and inveterate Bach and organ-music lover. The cycle is centered on a series of modern Danish Marcussen & Sons organs that had all just been built around the time she recorded them. The result is a clear and fairly bright sound throughout with a lot of diversity within that (admittedly narrow) spectrum). It undusted an organ sound in Bach that had at the time become thick and dark and crusted like a medieval painting where the grime and dirt of centuries had been taken for a characteristic of the real thing. Jed Distler, who reviewed this set for ClassicsToday (where the other two Alain cycles are also given reference status), is right in pointing out the still greater clarity (in recorded sound, instrument character, and playing) this set features over Alain’s subsequent takes. That’s perhaps most surprising when it comes to the recording quality which is, with very minor exceptions (a few cases of extraneous noise; one off-kilter note that wasn’t re-recorded), exceptional – certainly a lot better than either of Helmut Walcha’s roughly contemporaneous cycles.

While Alain herself has apparently called these her “most instinctive” interpretations, they are actually rather straight-laced, linear readings without quirks or youthful liberties (Alain was 33 when she got started on them) and, if anything, understated. One neat aspect of this cycle is that it rigorously included all the works then assigned to Bach, even those that weren’t by Bach: A virtual survey of the Bachwerkeverzeichniss of the 60s. How nice to see that Warner/Erato’s re-issuing extends far beyond the most obvious classics in their (now huge) back catalogue. Nicer still: That a budget release such as this got excellent liner notes (the original ones from Marie-Claire Alain) in three languages.

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