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Jean Guillou: Liszt Transcriptions and Improvisations

Liszt: Prometheus, symphonic poem No. 5, S99
Fantasia & Fugue on B-A-C-H, S529
Orpheus for organ
Fantasia and Fugue on ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam', S259 (from Mayerbeer's Le Prophète)


Jean Guillou at the organ of the Naples Conservatory

Universal/Philips 6860 084 and 480 0987

There is only one criticism to be made of this sensational CD release. These two discs should have been packaged together, showing two sides of Jean Guillou's remarkable artistry. Born 1930, and still at the height of his powers, Guillou is not every organist's favourite organist (I once had hostile correspondence about him from one of the others !) but for eclectic generalists like us he has no peer.

An experience of Guillou's playing of his own compositions at a recital in his own base, St. Eustache in Paris, remained imprinted on my memory ever after; check out http://www.musicweb.uk.net/classrev/dec99/guillou.htm.

I then began collecting his recordings, of which these two, made during a short stay in Naples a year ago, are the most recent.

Guillou makes you forget that the organ is a machine and in Liszt he gives it all the colour and expressive depth of an orchestra, as can be heard in his own transcriptions of Prometheus and Orpheus (the latter used to be a favourite of Beecham's). The Fantasia & Fugue on B-A-C-H is a version syncrétique, in its figurations drawing upon Guillou's equal facility on the piano. The Meyerbeer work is a monumental creation, a tour de force, nearly half an hour long.

In complete contrast are the improvisations recorded during the last of the few days sessions in Naples over the weekend of New Year 2008. A peculiarity of that engagement is that Guillou himself had designed the organ at the Conservatory there, but for reasons arcane and administrative it remained unplayed for 25 years, would you believe... It needed by then a full restoration and Guillou returned to inaugurate it in recital during 2007, as he explains in the booklet notes with the Liszt disc.

His improvisations recorded on 4th January 2008 include Neapolitan songs with Guillou "wreaking havoc on their naievety with coruscating inspiration", the sequence ending with a Homage to Gesualdo.

Magnificent recording; illuminating notes, with full registrations of the organ. Unmissable !

Peter Grahame Woolf