Bach: Organ Works / Guillou

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This is a reissue of six separate discs Jean Guillou recorded for Dorian in 1987 (1 and 6) and 1990 (2–5), issued separately in 1990...

This is a reissue of six separate discs Jean Guillou recorded for Dorian in 1987 (1 and 6) and 1990 (2–5), issued separately in 1990 and 1993. I couldn’t find reviews of them in the  Fanfare Archive, which doesn’t go back that far. Elsewhere on the Internet, however, one finds both lavish praise and caveats, the latter because these are not strict readings of Bach’s music but contain moments in which Guillou, himself a composer, dares to improvise certain notes or passages, which brings the listener to decide whether or not such an approach is valid.

One online review said that Guillou plays these works much like Glenn Gould played Bach on piano, but where Gould’s reinterpretations extended only to tempo and phrasing, Guillou also adds or changes the music. As you can expect, reactions to this vary widely, from one Amazon reviewer who said (as I would) that “he improvises in such a way that casual listeners never suspect … that what they are hearing is not part of the piece they think they are hearing,” to Joel Warren Lidz, Ph.D., who flatly states that “his Dorian recordings are a joke in my opinion.” Both reactions are possible depending on your perspective. On the one hand, improvisation was accepted Baroque practice in solo instrumental music. Yehuda Hanani recorded Bach’s cello suites in a similar manner. But on the other hand, Bach’s music is considered sacrosanct; what one is permitted to do in Couperin, Scarlatti, or Vivaldi is simply not done in Bach. His works are considered complete and immutable. 

In the final analysis, however, the most important question is, does it work, or is it really obtrusive? That must be left to the decision of each auditor. I say that it works. Should, or could, this approach be applied to other works by Bach? I think so, particularly in  A Musical Offering and Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2. But, again, this is purely subjective and speculative.

As for Guillou’s playing there can be no argument. He is not only a virtuoso of the first rank, but shows a remarkable grasp of line and structure, rhythm and color. His feet and fingers fly so swiftly over the instrument that one is left in awe that he is also able to change registration, sometimes in the very middle of a passage. His playing is indeed relative to Gould’s in the sense that quick tempos and rhythmic acuity (almost a little clipped at times, like Gould) are hallmarks of his style. But also like Gould at various stages of his career, Guillou does not slough off or rush legato passages, but lingers a bit over them (as in the Trio Sonata BWV 525) with loving affection. He is, above all, French, and therefore brings a very Gallic sensibility to this music. Indeed, going through this set, one may be struck, as I was, by the sheer variety of moods he is able to evoke. Guillot clearly views Bach’s organ music as both evocative and structural, and so does not ignore either aspect of the music. 

Of course, this set only includes about half of Bach’s organ music, not counting the concertos or spurious works given BWV numbers. Guillot made a second, complete, set issued by Philips on 12 CDs in 1999. You can find reference to it, and a photo of the box, at, but neither a catalog number nor an outlet where you can buy it outside of Amazon. The fact that it appears to be available only in Bach’s home country tells me that the Germans love his playing a lot more than American or British musicological pedants do. 

Considering that the set is incomplete, I wondered why one whole disc was devoted to the  Goldberg Variations rather than more of the bona-fide organ music. Listening explained why. Not only does Guillou view this music as an opportunity to (literally) pull out all the stops, but the score also gives him license to improvise beyond one’s expectations or belief. He turns the very first variation, for instance, into a two-part contrapuntal dialogue, taken at a rapid clip, but nothing in the entire boxed set prepared me for his playing of Variation 14. This will absolutely blow you away—I haven’t heard its like in 40 years of listening to organ playing, Bach, the Goldberg Variations , or any combination thereof. When it started, I thought for sure this was speeded up from the original tape for release. It seemed to me impossible that any human being, particularly one in his 70s at the time of recording, could play this fast. But there it is.

Two organs are used, discs 2–5 being recorded at the Tonhalle, Zurich, while discs 1 and 6 (the  Goldberg Variations ) were recorded on the special Klueker organ that Guillou himself designed at the Church of Our Lady of the Snows in Alpe d’Huez, France. Both are modern in sound, with a wide variety of stops and registrations that add considerable color. The sound quality is spectacular, combining both a close perspective for brilliant passages and atmospheric roominess for quieter and more muted ones. If you insist on authentic-organ performances, there are not one but two series by Helmut Walcha, in a 10-CD set (mono) on Deutsche Grammophon 000185602 and a 12-disc set (stereo) on Archiv 463712; or the much better-recorded (and less dryly performed) 11-CD set by George Ritchie on Raven 875, possibly your best buy at around $60. Yet my personal recommendation for a “straight” set played by a master on older organs goes to the great Marie-Claire Alain (her third and last set, 14 CDs on Erato 96358, by all accounts her finest).

Your decision to acquire this Guillou set will, of course, depend on the issues described above, but I really think you owe it to yourself to hear it. Besides, it is a bargain, selling for a little more than the price of two of the single discs, if you can find them (not all are still in print). I recommend it, even as the only set you may want of Bach’s organ works, unless you are a purist or a completist. 

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley 

This six-CD set presents J. S. Bach’s great works for organ performed by Jean Guillou, a leading exponent of his instrument. The discs were recorded in 1987 and 1990 on the Kleuer organ of the Eglise Notre-Dame des Neiges at l’Alpe d’Huez and on the Kleuker-Steinmeyer organ of the Tonhalle in Zurich. These are both exceptionally fine instruments, with focused, clear tone throughout the range and well-differentiated voicing. Guillou’s performances are extremely intelligent, with well-thought-out registration and an excellent resultant layering of sound. Individual voices are brought appropriately to the foreground and the climaxes are solid, though never clogged with redundant sound. The use of registration is particularly refreshing in the context of the better-known works - Guillou’s sense of dialogue in the closing paragraph of the Toccata of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 is palpable, lending a new perspective to a work that is so often characterised by an indulgent wash of sound. The delineation of voices can be heard to good advantage, too, in the Chorale Preludes - the chorale melody occupies the foreground to a sufficient extent to be evident, but still at a level of translucency that allows Bach’s often startlingly innovative harmonic interpretation to shine through. Listen to In dulci jubilo, BWV 608 and An Wasserflüssen Babylon, BWV 653, for particularly interesting examples of this. Striking harmonic piquancy is imparted through judicious use of the Sesquialtera on the Positif, which some listeners may find disturbing at first; but once the ear has accustomed itself to this slightly unusual colour, it will be perceived as an enhancement to the harmonic color and as an excitingly innovative dimension to the sound-landscape. 

Guillou’s employment of rhythm as an expressive medium is also impressive, and results in a momentum that is essentially horizontal: he allows the music’s harmonic characteristic to inform the vertical element and thus brings the melodic element to the fore. Such an interpretation becomes at once a celebration of Bach’s contrapuntal art and a realisation of its basis in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century vocal polyphony.

The booklet notes are clear and well-written, with the works appropriately grouped according to type; although those unfamiliar with musicological research connected with this music might appreciate a brief explanation of the credentials of the ubiquitously mentioned Peter Williams. There is enough technical detail to provide ‘signposts’ to guide a listener through the works; and informative historical data, too; as well as some enjoyable anecdotes (such as Hubert Parry’s word-setting of the subject of the G minor Fugue). Fascinating notes on the organs and full specifications of both are given, pleasingly enough. An authoritative and fascinating set of discs.

-- Em Marshall, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: February 23, 2010

  • UPC: 053479210425

  • Catalog Number: DSL-92104

  • Label: Dorian

  • Number of Discs: 6

  • Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach

  • Performer: Jean Guillou