Complete Organ Works
Ann Labounsky (org)
VOIX DU VENT 01 (26 CDs: 1675:28)
This is a major project nearly 30 years in the making—a set of recordings of the complete organ works of French composer Jean Langlais (1907–1991) performed superbly and definitively by American organist Ann Labounsky. Labounsky began planning this project in the 1970s with Langlais’s enthusiastic support and supervision. The first volume was recorded in 1979 and the last in 2003. All were released initially by Musical Heritage Society, but with the dissolution of that company, they have now been rereleased in a beautiful integral box set by Voix du Vent Recordings. The complete works are spread over 13 volumes, each containing two CDs—about 28 hours of music in total. Voix du Vent also sells each volume separately. Also included is a 192-page book containing detailed information on all the music and the specification for each organ used.
Langlais was born in La Fontenelle (near Mont Saint-Michel) and was educated at the National Institute for the Blind and the Paris Conservatory. He studied with André Marchal, Marcel Dupré, Paul Dukas, and Charles Tournemire, and served as
of the Basilica of Sainte-Clotilde in Paris from 1945 until 1988. He performed many recital tours throughout Europe and the United States, and taught at the Schola Cantorum in Paris from 1961 to 1976. As a composer, Langlais published hundreds of works, most of which are for the organ. Ann Labounsky was a student of Langlais from 1962 to 1964 and remained a close associate and champion of his work for the remainder of his life. In 2000, she also published an excellent biography (
Jean Langlais: The Man and His Music
, Amadeus Press), which Langlais had asked her to write. Labounsky has had a long and distinguished career as a professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and has concertized and taught worldwide. A constant throughout her professional career has been the music of Langlais, and along with Langlais’s second wife (Marie-Louise Langlais, who wrote the first book in French on his music) remains the leading expert on his work.
Like Olivier Messiaen, Langlais exemplifies the move towards more contemporary techniques in the development of French organ tradition. His harmonic style in general is freely tonal (or more accurately, modal), though at times his music embraced atonal and quasi-serial harmonic techniques as well as expressionist and additive rhythms. The bedrock musical elements that underpin his style were the church modes and plainchant, drawing on his traditional training with Tournemire and the continued inspiration of his liturgical work at Sainte-Clotilde. Langlais’s use of modality is often idiosyncratic and personal, though the modes themselves are primarily traditional ones. This is an important difference from Messiaen’s music, much of which was based on harmonies and modes entirely of his own invention. The most instantly recognizable works in Langlais’s output employ his personal approach to modality, and have been quite influential on later organ music. Labounsky divides the thematic material of Langlais’s output into three primary sources: (1) plainchant; (2) folk music (often from Brittany, where he was born); (3) original themes. Each volume of the CD series contains pieces representative of each of these sources.
It would be impossible to address Langlais’s output without addressing its unevenness. At its very best, Langlais’s music is both strikingly personal and intensely focused, with musical ideas that are both engaging and direct. However, there are many works that display a great deal of inconsistency, bringing together musical material and disparate ideas in a way that is not especially cohesive or integrated. Some are also just dull, with weak or unmemorable material extended far beyond what it can support. Others rely too much on repetition without development or on overuse of certain musical ideas (e.g., endless passages harmonized in fourths and fifths). To some partial degree these weaknesses may be perhaps explained by his blindness. It is remarkable to realize that a man who wrote this much music never once actually saw what traditional musical notation looked like or how one of his pieces appeared on the page. Despite Braille notation and a prodigious memory, not being able to “go over” his works visually on the page may have contributed to the lack of revision and reworking. In the biography’s epilog, Labounsky mentions that later in life Langlais himself did regret not being a bit more self-critical (like Brahms). He had a tendency to send a completed work immediately to the transcriber/copyist.
Although he was always necessarily reliant on copyists to transcribe his music from Braille musical notation, following a stroke in 1984 Langlais was largely unable to produce his own scores at all. Thus the music was largely dictated verbally at the piano to a series of assistants who would then produce the score. The music from 1984–91 is thus particularly uneven, much of it written on commission from American publishers who were eager to capitalize on Langlais’s fame in presenting more of his music to the market. Among the low points are a bizarre set of
American Folk-Hymn Settings
(1985), a rather uninspired set of
(1986), a very silly and overblown
(1990), the astoundingly dull
(1985), a set of inconsistent plainchant-based pieces in which it almost seems like he forget what happened on the page before when writing the next. However, there are highlights from even these years, such as the excellent
(1985), written in memory of his beloved teacher Tournemire; or Langlais’s penultimate composition
Suite in simplicitate
(1990), a work of great tenderness based on plainchant treated very simply, as if accompanying singing.
Langlais’s organ output is extremely wide ranging, both in purpose and style. There are enormous concert works, such as the very thorny
Cinq méditations sur l’apocalypse
(1973, one of the works of which he was most proud) or the pictorial
Offrande à une âme
(1979, written in memory of his first wife). There are also numerous smaller scale pieces, which range from extremely simple music for absolute beginners (e.g.,
1975) to practical pieces that are a bit more involved, though still within the grasp of most organists (
1956). There are also works that have entered the standard organ repertoire, such as
(1947) with its famous “Dialogue sur les mixtures” finale;
Trois paraphrases grégoriennes
(1933–34) with its Te Deum; and
(1942–43), containing the oft-played “Chant de paix.” Most of the frequently played works date from early in his career, and the quality of the earlier pieces does tend to be significantly higher.
Other highlights from his organ output include the excellent
(1933–39), an extended collection (over 80 minutes of music) for either organ or harmonium, in the tradition of French works (by Vierne, Franck, and many others) for that dual instrumentation;
(1946), a deservedly popular work in a brilliant, festive style celebrating the end of World War II;
Dix versets dans les mode grégoriennes
(1962), a wonderful set of brief pieces in various modes, each possessing a memorable and extremely beautiful character; a tightly and superbly constructed atonal trio sonata (
Sonate en trio
, 1967); various engaging and dramatic works based on liturgical offices and plainchant melodies (e.g.,
Incantation pour un jour saint
Dominica in palmis
1978); and several suites inspired at least in part by early music (the tremendous
, 1948; and the quite good
Hommage à Frescobaldi,
, 1973). Though Langlais would occasionally title certain pieces in a way that would imply literal evocations of past styles (e.g.,
Suite médiévale, Deux petites pièces dans le style medieval, Prélude dans le style ancien
), the influence and historical reference is meant quite obliquely, and ironically they are some of the pieces in which he sounds most himself.
In the biography, Labounsky relates how despite a close lifelong personal friendship with Messiaen (who greatly respected Langlais’s music and played it often), Langlais always had great insecurity as to his stature relative to Messiaen. Messiaen is inarguably the greater composer, but this does not at all diminish Langlais’s own significant achievements and personal voice. Furthermore, Langlais possessed several gifts which Messiaen did not—most notably an ability and willingness to write music for the entire gamut of musical purposes: from major concert pieces for virtuosos to very easy works for beginner organists/choirs. Langlais wrote “practical” church music for both the French and American church world, and most of these works are extremely well suited to their purpose, while still remaining instantly recognizable as his own.
A variety of primarily American organs are used for these recordings, several understandably chosen for their convenience in the Pittsburgh area to where Labounsky has been based. Though some of the American instruments are nominally French inspired in their character, their tonal designers (such as Lawrence Phelps of Casavant) had many other influences affecting their work, which more often resembles the American Classic eclectic style of organ building. Nevertheless, Langlais toured America numerous times, expressed his admiration for American organs, and even played himself on all but one of the instruments used. In several cases, he recommended the instruments in question for use on the recording. Thus it is certainly quite justifiable to perform his music on these organs. These American instruments range from the 1963 Casavant at Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh to the famous 1863 Walcker at Methuen Memorial Music Hall to the 1912 Kimball at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Denver. The final volumes were recorded in France on the Cavaillé-Coll/Merklin instrument of Saint-Antoine-des-Quizne-Vingts in Paris. On the final volume, Labounsky re-records two important works (
Trois paraphrases grégoriennes
) that she had recorded 24 years earlier on the first CD. Given that the recordings were made over such an extended period, one can inevitably hear the evolution of recording technology as the volumes progress. In some volumes, there are occasionally noticeable edits (and for the first sessions the technology did not really permit editing within sections at all), but all discs remain very satisfying sonically, and all were completely remastered and updated by Voix du Vent for this new integral release.
Labounsky’s performances are uniformly excellent—unequivocally solid both musically and technically. Labounsky also really makes the most of the weaker pieces (for some works her renditions are likely to remain the only commercial recordings), and has carefully grouped the repertoire across the discs in such a way so that every album has variety in every sense. But the most satisfying moments unsurprisingly come in the best works, where both performer and music are operating at the highest level, and the result is stunning. It is in these pieces and moments that one realizes why this music continues to be an important part of the organ literature of the 20th century. There are several frequently played pieces that I never before found fully compelling until I heard Labounsky’s insightful performances. This is not to say that other performers could not come up with their own musically valid and compelling interpretations of this music, but Labounsky’s renditions serve as a gold standard for her deep understanding of exactly how this music works. Langlais wrote three
for two organists (the second of which is the best: a very tightly made and terrifically dramatic piece; the first is sprawling and loses focus), and in the first two of these works (the third can alternatively be performed by a single player) Labounsky is joined by the late David Craighead, one of America’s finest and most beloved concert organists.
Many of Langlais’s published scores are problematic. When Labounsky and another Langlais student began the process of compiling a definite errata list, Langlais objected and said that if people knew how many mistakes there were in the printed publications, they would not buy his music! Early in his career, Langlais had realized he could sell more copies of his music if he published his works with many different publishers (in several countries). Because of this, an integral “complete works critical edition” is unlikely to ever be produced, at least not until they are all out of copyright. Thus, Labounsky’s recordings are even more invaluable—here are the correct notes, thoughtful tempos, and composer-approved interpretations. Thus, this is an important resource for performers approaching Langlais’s music.
For those who are already interested in the organ music of Langlais, the entire set is well worth owning and self-recommending. For those whose interest might be more limited (or who are curious about or unfamiliar with Langlais’s music), individual volumes may be a more reasonable way to enjoy the music. In particular, I would recommend Vol. 2 (CDs 3 & 4), which contains a sampling of the early and late, familiar and unfamiliar, and large and small, and several superb works. Vol. 9 (CDs 17 & 18) would be another good choice, as it contains one of Langlais’s most important and boundary pushing pieces, the enormous
Cinq méditations sur l’apocalypse
. The final volumes, recorded on the beautiful Saint-Antoine instrument are also highly recommended. Labounsky’s careful repertoire choices for each volume mean that whichever one(s) is picked, there will almost certainly be something therein to enjoy.