The Organ

Jean Guillou

19th June/4th July

Jean Guillou has always been a challenging performer and seemingly the older he gets the more challenging he becomes. Where other organists might tend to take things a little easier in their maturity Jean Guillou has if anything increased the dynamic thrust of his composition and expectations. For the climax of this year's Festival des Grandes Orgues de St Eustache he brought together eight international recitalists and a percussionist to join him in La Révolte des orgues, a new composition for eight chamber organs and the main organ in St Eustache. Simply getting the instruments into the church and then tuning them to enable the composition to develop harmoniously was a magnificent undertaking in its own right. That the instruments were tuned to different temperaments was part of the challenge of the compositions. As the work moved around the building one was aware not just of internal harmonic clashes but the subtle shift in harmonics from one instrument to the other.

The photograph indicates the way the instruments were arranged, with four chamber organs spread in an arc across the west end with the main organ console, while the other four were in a mirroring arc half way down the nave. I would very much have liked to have heard the work twice from different places as the impact from the instruments was obviously very different dependent upon one's seat in the church.

That said the work itself was built on a series of rhythmic and melodic fragments which were passed around, floated from one to another, mirrored and enhanced in what appeared to be a highly improvisational style, yet a glance at the score made one realise that everything was very closely annotated. Quieter passages almost disappeared into the ether, alongside Messiaen-like bird calls. More strident, violent writing brought all of the forces together and sought to outdo the massive thunder storm which had broken overhead. It seemed a fitting accompaniment to the stature of the work. I understand that Martin Baker hopes to bring it to Westminster Cathedral. I hope he is successful as it will be well worth hearing – and experiencing – again.

In the first half Jean Guillou gave us his own arrangements of works by Scarlatti and Vivaldi, and a fine arrangement of W F Bach's concerto for two harpsichords, arranged for chamber organs and played by Jean Guillou and Johannes Skudlik. The climax of the first half was the arrangement of Bach's concerto for four harpsichords and orchestra arranged for four chamber organs and the grand organ. This was remarkably successful and Jean Guillou showed great sensitivity in using the vast resources of the main organ with such delicacy for the accompaniment.

Jean Guillou's recital in Westminster Cathedral was more conventional but none the less stimulating opening with his own Fire Suite. The five movements range across the psychological as well as the physical reality of fire, touching on Hermes and Phlogistic Fire, as well as the Fire of Exaltation. Not an easy work at first hearing, Jean Guillou found an exemplary range of colour and texture of great clarity. What surprised was that the section Fires of Silence was so loud!

This was followed by a fiercely extrovert reading of Vierne's Second Symphony with dense, angry textures and frequent melancholic registration.

He concluded the recital with a typically upbeat improvisation based on three melodic snatches by Britten, Bernstein and Stravinsky.