Voix du Vent Recordings
  Shopping Cart Shopping Cart - 0 item(s) / Total: $0
Home > Professional Reviews
 

Professional Reviews

FANFARE The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors, September 2013
REVIEW

Ann Labounsky: LANGLAIS Complete Organ Works on VOIX DU VENT
Reviewed by Carson Cooman

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 152-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 organiste titulaire 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 Douze versets (1986), a very silly and overblown Moonlight Scherzo (1990), the astoundingly dull Cinq soleils (1983), and Talitha koum (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 In memoriam (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., Quatre preludes, 1975) to practical pieces that are a bit more involved, though still within the grasp of most organists (Organ Book, 1956). There are also works that have entered the standard organ repertoire, such as Suite brève (1947) with its famous “Dialogue sur les mixtures” finale; Trois paraphrases grégoriennes (1933–34) with its Te Deum; and Neuf pièces (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 Vingt-Quatre pièces (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; Fête (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, 1949; Dominica in palmis, 1953; Triptique grégorien, 1978); and several suites inspired at least in part by early music (the tremendous Suite française, 1948; and the quite good Hommage à Frescobaldi, 1951 and Suite baroque, 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 and Poémes évangéliques) 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 fantaisies 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.



The Diapason, September 2012

REVIEW

The Complete Organ Works of Jean Langlais, Ann Labounsky, organ

Jean Langlais lived from 1907 to 1991 and is considered one of the foremost French organ composers of the 20th century. Blind from the age of two, Langlais first attended the National Institute for the Young Blind and began studying organ with André Marchal. From there he went on to the Paris Conservatoire, studying composition with Paul Dukas and organ with Marcel Dupré. Further studies in Gregorian chant-based improvisation were pursued with Charles Tournemire. As a successor to both César Franck and Charles Tournemire, he became organist at the Basilique de Ste-Clotilde in Paris in 1945. Langlais held this position until his retirement in 1988. It was, however, as a touring organist that he achieved his greatest fame — touring widely in both Europe and the United States, and always concluding his recitals with an improvisation on a submitted theme.

As the leading American disciple of Jean Langlais, Ann Labounsky lived and studied in Paris from 1962 to 1964 on a Fulbright scholarship, immersing herself in the French organ tradition. Labounsky studied most of Langlais’ compositions with him and performed them for him on the organ at Saint-Clotilde. While she was one of Langlais’ students at the Schola Cantorum, she earned the Diplome de Virtuosité avec mention maximum in both improvisation and performance. In 2007 an English-language DVD with Ann Labounsky as both performer and narrator, entitled The Life and Music of Jean Langlais, was produced by the Los Angeles AGO chapter, to celebrate Langlais’ contributions and to acknowledge the centenary of his birth. (Reviewed by this writer in THE DIAPASON, March 2012, p. 19) Dr. Labounsky now serves as the chairman of the organ and sacred music departments at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where she oversees both undergraduate and graduate programs in sacred music.

These recordings have been the lifetime project of Ann Labounsky, and were released in December 2011. What is presented here is both a monument to Jean Langlais and the devotion of one of his most gifted students. Wonderfully presented are 26 audio CDs and a full-color 152-page booklet.

Calling the notes here a booklet (it is in small “booklet” format) does not really do justice to the definitive and complete information included within. It begins with a biographical sketch of the composer, biographies of Ann Labounsky and the late David Craighead (who is heard in the works for two organists), and notes on re-mastering these recordings.

The Langlais recordings were made over a period of 24 years, from 1979 to 2003, and are a testament to the virtual revolution of recording technology, from the days of analog tape running at 15 inches per second, through six different digital formats, to the present-day world of multi-track editing at high sample rates. For those who understand the esoteric world of electronics, microphones, digital converters, and editing systems, all of the information is here in detail.

The instruments on these recordings, beginning with St. Peter Cathedral Church in Erie, Pennsylvania, and including instruments in Massachusetts, Denver, Colorado, and three locations in Paris, were chosen for a number of reasons; the ease of recording and the lack of outside noise, the compatibility with the essence of his music, and the fact that Langlais had performed on all of these instruments except one.

These recordings are even more distinct since Langlais himself directly participated in the project and played a supervisory role. The composer helped in the grouping of the works, in providing program notes (which are extensive for every piece), and spent countless hours discussing his life and his work for the notes.

In attempting a large project such as recording a composer’s complete works, the first decision that must be made is the organization of the music. The simplest way would be to present the music in chronological order, from the very first opus to the last published (or unpublished) work. However, a more novel approach was taken here. Langlais took the thematic inspiration for his music from three different sources; from the Gregorian plainchant that he knew so well as an organist and upon which he would improvise, from folk music and folk sources that interested him, and from his own original material. Each of the discs includes groupings of pieces (approved by Langlais) that give an example of these three different sources of inspiration, and where possible, some recognition of their chronology that can be heard in the process.

The full-color booklet also contains detailed stoplists of all of the instruments used. The information about the organ and their locations is complete and detailed. Nothing has been omitted in these full and extensive notes.

This set of recordings is the perfect combination of virtuoso playing, authentic scholarship of the highest order, and masterful presentation of the material.

— David Wagner, Madonna University



Review by François Sabatier for l’Orgue, No. 297, 2012-1, p. 106-107.
REVIEW
Translated from the French by Bette Bergheim Lustig.

The Complete Works of Jean Langlais Interpreted by Ann Labounsky on Four American Organs.

We celebrate, as we should, what can be considered a major achievement, the result of what can only be imagined as an enormous work for the organist as well as for those surrounding her and this enterprise beginning in 1979 and completed in 2003. When we have further specified that the complete works of Langlais are roughly double in length that of Bach and include more than ninety opus numbers, with some very difficult passages requiring tireless work and maturation time- we can understand that, besides the difficulties encountered in finding a recording company prepared to commit the considerable funds necessary and willing to carry out such an operation successfully (could we even find one in France?) this is inconceivable without a lot of time (almost twenty-five years) and a perseverance that we must applaud.

As a student of Jean Langlais (1962 to 1964) in Paris and of André Marchal, she had the opportunity to play regularly in France, especially at the Sainte-Clotilde church, and on the radio. She was awarded her doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh where she wrote her dissertation on Jean Langlais: The Man and His Music, published in 2000 by Amadeus Press. Considered one of the finest interpreters of French music, she has thus given many concerts of Langlais’s music. A Professor of Music at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, she also holds the post of organist in residence at the First Lutheran Church in Pittsburgh. She has both the technique and the cultivation necessary for the performance and the transmission of this music. Listening to the volumes before us here, the interpretations are brilliant when necessary but also – without falling into the trap of over-expression—alternately tender, colorful, contemplative or humorous, and listeners will find them very satisfying. In short, the performance of this musician is perfectly suited to each situation and with the necessary rubato and restraint, she always succeeds in maintaining a certain dignity or in being convincing, without over-doing her demonstration of effortless virtuosity. She also understands very well the melancholic nature of Breton culture and the spiritual grace of the Gregorian repertoire, conditions necessary for approaching an immense part of Jean Langlais’s works.

To achieve such a result, the interpreter, rightly appreciated in her own country, sought seven instruments, four in the United States, in Erie, Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), Methuen (Massachusetts), and Denver (Colorado), all neoclassical aesthetics and consistent with what the composer played or heard during his numerous stays in America. The first, completed by Casavant in 1987 for St. Peter’s Cathedral in Erie has fifty-seven real stops on three keyboards, manual and pedal, with a trumpet en chamade, a contrebombarde 32, with mixtures of each division and mutations and reeds so necessary for Langlais’s music. Very well recorded, like the other instruments in these complete works, the sounds have balance and finesse. The second organ, the one from Pittsburgh, (Calvary Episcopal Church Casavant 1963) divides its eighty-eight stops into two cases located on either side of the choir and offers four keyboards, two of them enclosed. It is a magnificent instrument, whose qualities are similar to those of the previous instruments optimal for the setting off of the large works, such as the Suite Médiévale. Quite famous and the subject of a recent book by Barbara Owen about which we reported in these same articles, the one in Methuen Memorial Music Hall comes from a hall in Boston where it was built by the German firm Walcker before its transfer and reconstruction by Skinner. Well-provided with gambas, endowed with beautiful flutes, mutations with sevenths and twenty-two sets of pedals, it is impressive with its large ensembles, but its separate stops are more distant and less refined than the previous two. Its Germanic origin is relatively felt, which does not completely correspond to the world of French artists contemporary with Langlais. But that said, the Hommage à Frescobaldi, stands out in admirable relief. On the other hand,  the one in the Immaculate Conception Cathedral on which Langlais played in Denver (Kimbell 1912, rebuilt in 1994) can compete with the first two, has fifty-eight stops, about ten of which borrowed (including all the pedal reeds with the exception of the 32 feet, which is very rare) and rings with clarity and radiance. To these achievements on the other side of the Atlantic we offer in exchange three well-known French instruments, the Beuchet-Debierre of Saint-Pierre of Angoulême and Dol-de-Bretagne (originally Louis Debierre) and Cavaillé-Coll Saint-Antoine-des-Quinze-Vingts (1894) where Langlais was deputy organist from 1925 to 1934.

Of course, it is not a matter of listening to the twenty-six discs in a row and no complete works are conceived of for that, but we should congratulate ourselves that Ann Labounsky allows us thus to probe the entire work and to measure the evolution of the composer on ideal sonoric bases. But this listening should be done regularly from day to day and according to an order not necessarily the one in which the disks were recorded, which would, each one, lead to an impartial judgment of this enormous creation, which, established over about two thirds of a century, began in the era of Ravel and ended with that of Boulez. As everyone knows, if one is willing to set aside certain audacities during the 1930s such as those of Jolivet (which do not involve the organ), the major changes occur in the year 1945 with the arrival of Leibowitz and the success of Webern serialism that Jehan Alain did not know, which transformed the language of Messiaen, which Langlais did not entirely reject. Listening to the complete oeuvre, many listeners will be persuaded that the composer was made to write in a modal system or in a more or less open tonality suited for the great concert works, and especially works written for the liturgy, these moving and grandiose ceremonies which were still composed in the 1960s. Hence the admiration we can bring to his  Paraphrases grégoriennes,  his Incantation pour un jour saint, and his Suite medieval and in another world to the First Symphony, the Folkloric Suite, the Suite brève, or Hommage à Frescobaldi. Indeed the American Suite which was perhaps not well received, but was nonetheless an interesting initiative in the context of the secularization of the organ. After 1960, we discover, of course, other major works of a broad scope such as Hommage à Rameau and Five Meditations on the Apocalypse. As to the last compositions, they are striking in their simplicity, their tendency to meditation, their fragmented form or sometimes their improvisational nature, free and clear of all restraints.

— François Sabatier

Choir and Organ Magazine, May/June 2012
REVIEW

The Complete Organ Works of Jean Langlais Ann Labounsky,
organs in the USA and France Voix du Vent (26 CDs in 13 Volumes)
**** (4 stars out of 5)


It is remarkable to note that whereas recordings of the complete organ works of Alain, Dupre 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 Hertage 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 gregoriennes and Poemes evangeliques 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 neo-classique in style, with the exceptions of the symphonic Cavaille-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 (Angouleme), even though the orgue de choeur swims in the distance somewhat. Labounsky is joined by David Craighead for these six Esquisses.

Langlais’s vast ouput, 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 Fete, 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 thumbprint, 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

http://www.rhinegold.co.uk/magazines/choir_and_organ/


Organ Australia, June 2012
REVIEW

Langlais: The Complete Organ Works Ann Labounsky (organ)

Voix du Vent CD 1025 (26-disc set, 13 volumes, including accompanying 152-page book) TT = 27.5 hours

Reviewed by Jennifer Chou

In honouring the 20th anniversary of the death of Jean Langlais, Voix du Vent has released The Complete Organ Works of Jean Langlais, a 13-volume box set of 26 CDs recorded by one of Langlais' disciples, Ann Labounsky. The entire recording project took over 30 years from start to finish; the box set was finally released in November 2011. It is the only recording ever made of the complete organ works of this composer.

A graduate of the Eastman School of Music and the University of Michigan, Ann Labounsky is widely known, both in the United States an in Europe, as a virtuoso performer and improviser at the organ. She is professor of music and chairman of the Organ and Sacred Music degree programs at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and the Organ Artist in Residence at First Lutheran Church in Pittsburgh.

I first met Ann Labounsky in 2000 when she took her organ class's members from Duquesne University to France to play the organs. I happened to be the one who showed them the Cavaille-Coll organ in Saint-Sernin inToulouse, and that was the meeting from which I came to know Labounsky as a leading American disciple of Langlais. Her marathon recording of the complete organ works by Langlais was not far from the finish line. Not only is Labounsky a disciple of Langlais who has performed his works all over the world, but she has also written an excellent and very worth reading biography on Langlais: Jean Langlais: The Man and His Music (2000). The long-anticipated release of this CD package culminated the grand finale of a gigantic project by Labounsky, who knew the man well and had worked closely with him.

When Labounsky began the recordings in 1979, recording sessions were under direct supervision by Langlais himself. This continued until 1985. Since the recordings were made over a period of 24 years (1979-2003), they present a journey of recording technology evolution from analogue to digital formats, as the technology matured. Frederick Bashour, Producer and Recording Engineer at Voix du Vent, re-mastered the early recordings and converted them to digital format for the CD release. The sound quality of these early recordings on the CDs is excellent and most satisfactory.

A variety of pipe organs associated with Langlais' career, both in France and in America (except for the instrument of Methuen Memorial Music Hall in Massachusetts, which is not thus associated), were chosen for the recordings. CDs 1-14 were entirely recorded in the USA. Three instruments were used: the three-manual Casavant organ (1977) at St Peter Roman Catholic Cathedral in Erie, Pennsylvania; the four-manual Casavant organ (1963) at Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh; and the four-manual Walcker/Skinner organ (1857/1931/1970) in Methuen Memorial Music Hall. CDs 15-26 were recorded between 1992 and 2003 in France, with the exception of CDs 19-20, which were done on the three-manual Kimbell/Morell organ (1912/1994) in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Denver. Labounsky made recording trips to France to record on two Beuchet-Debierre organs dating from 1848: in the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre in Angouleme, and in the Cathedral of Saint Samson in Dol-de-Bretagne. In Paris, she chose the Cavaille-Coll organ at the church of Saint Antoine-des-Quinze-Vingts - where Langlais had served during the early 1930s - to record the pieces in CDs 21-26. This is the particular instrument which inspired Langlais to compose the Trois paraphrases gregoriennes and the Poemes evangeliques. Labounsky first recorded these works in 1979 on the 1977 Casavant organ (Volume 1 CD1 and CD2) but recorded them again in 2003 at Saint-Antoine-des-Quinze-Vingts for the more authentic sound of the organ. It is worth listening to the 1979 and 2003 recordings back-to-back, to hear how recording technology has changed, and to listen to the interpretation of the same works by the same performer 24 years apart.

Langlais' output for the organ was enormous, containing over 300 pieces. Gregorian chant, folk melodies, and his own original themes are the three principle elements in Langlais' organ music. These three elements are the main sources of Langlais' works; they influenced his earliest compositions and continued throughout his long career as a composer. Rather than organising the recordings of Langlais' organ works in the order of composition, from earliest to most recent, Labounsky carefully included all three stylistic elements in each volume of the CDs,and ensured that as much as possible, some development from early to more recent works should be recognisable."

Each CD is a meticulously designed programme on its own, with great variety, and forming a showcase of the different instruments Labounsky chose to make the recordings on. Not only that, but the recording marathon of the 26 CDs also reflects the musical journey of Labounsky as an authentic interpteter of Langlais' organ works.

Langlais' pieces for the instrument are generally very accessible. Most works and individual movements are between a few minutes and several minutes long. There is a number of longer pieces, but apart from Poem of Life, op. 146 (CD 9), In memoriam (CD 16),and Offrande a une ame, op. 206 which has a duration of nearly 25 minutes, no composition takes more than 15 minutes to play. The duration of each CD varies between 55 and 75 minutes.

Accompanying the box set is the 152-page book which includes biographical sketches of Langlais and Labounsky, the recording history of the recordings, the history of the churches, and the specifications of each of the pipe organs used for the recordings. Painstaking efforts were made to include detailed programme notes on each piece recorded. This book can even be purchased separately on the website of Voix du Vent: www.voixduventrecordings.com.

To my taste, Labounsky has done a great job in reproducing a most convincing French sound on the American organs on 16 out of the 26 CDs. The 26 CDs can be bought as a box set, or as single volumes each containing two discs.

http://www.oswa.org.au/General/OrganAustralia.html