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Exploring Music: A Very Special Relationship

The MHS Review 387 Vol. 11 No.9, 1987

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Robert McAlear


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The release of the fourth volume of the complete organ works by Jean Langlais is, for a number of reasons, an occasion to celebrate. It falls during the same year as the 80th birthday of the venerable master of the keyboard, and it marks the 25th anniversary of his association with Ann Labounsky, a former student who has become one of the foremost interpreters of Langlais' works for organ. Further, this volume is the "halfway point" in Ms. Laboun­sky's ground-breaking, seven-volume traversal of Langlais' organ works, a body of music that exceeds even Old Bach's output in the same genre.

Anyone familiar with the first three volumes in this series is well aware of the fact that this project is a labor of love on the grandest scale. When Ann La­bounsky first proposed the idea of recor­ding all of Langlais' organ music to the Musical Heritage Society almost 10 years ago, she received a prompt and en­thusiastic reply. Later, however, when the full breadth of the project was made apparent to the powers that be at MHS, there was a moment's hesitation, follow­ed first by a collective gulp and then by a determined commitment to see the project through to its completion.

Perhaps the most important feature of this series of recordings is the fact that it is being undertaken under the super­vision of the composer himself. Over the past quarter century, Ann Labounsky has immersed herself in Langlais' music, and the composer, in turn, has seen fit to en­trust to her a number of important premieres. During this time an impor­tant affinity has developed between the composer and his former student, not unlike the special relationships that evolved between Eric Fenby and Frederick Delius, or Robert Craft and Ig­or Stravinsky. Ms. Labounsky's inter­pretations, crafted with an assured knowledge of the composer's inten­tions, bear a stamp of authenticity (although she is quick and adamant in stating that they are by no means "definitive"), enhanced by the fact that the master tapes of all of these perfor­mances have been approved by Langlais, who has further offered advice on the order in which his works are to be presented.

Included in this volume are three major works, each revealing different sides of the composer. 0ffrande a Marie is a moving manifestation of Langlais' devout Catholicism and his deeply felt devotion to the Virgin Mary. Each of its six movements makes use of melodies culled from Marian Gregorian chants. His set of three poems includes the im­posing Poem of Life. Written in 1965, it was the longest work he had written up to that time and is considered a watershed event in Langlais' career as a composer. It is an emotional and in­tensely personal rhapsody on his feel­ings about life, in which the names of many of his friends are lovingly ar­ticulated by way of musical notation.

Also included in volume 4 is the Organ Book, a work known the world over by organ students, and which reveals Langlais' skill at combining his gifts for composition and pedagogy in­to a highly satisfying and instructive ar­tistic entity. A large number of smaller works complete the three-item set, which number has been compiled not in chronological order, but in terms of musical interest and stylistic contrast covering many different periods in Langlais' life.

As with the first three volumes, volume 4 comes replete with a generous offering of copious program notes (themselves an invaluable source of reference material pertaining to Langlais) lovingly prepared by Ann Labounsky.

A review of Jean Langlais Complete Organ Works, Vol 4

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