The Organ

Pictures at an Exhibition

Pictures at an Exhibition
Robert Houssart

Regent REGCD 267

The catch-all title of this extraordinary collection of pieces might have seemed a reasonable marketing ploy, but it is certainly a mixed bag. It begins with Houssart’s transcription (actually, a very effective one, which would make an attractive encore item) of the Troika from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé. Although it is quite nicely played, what it is doing here in this collection remains something of a puzzle.

Naji Hakim was Messiaen’s successor at St Sulpice (a fact omitted from Peter Beavan’s otherwise informative booklet notes), but he is nowise a comparable creative figure, if this suite is anything to go by. The suite is worth hearing the once, but the music is too inconsistent in style to be convincing as a whole: frankly, you cannot set elements of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Mass and his version of the Von Himmel Hoch Variations within your own ideas and expect to come up with a coherent work of art, especially as Hakim does not possess the sheer force of Stravinsky’s creative personality, or anything like it. Surprise your audience by all means, but don’t get them to leave before your music has finished.

Such a comment (or something like it) has doubtless been made regarding the organ music of Jean Guillou, which is at times of a difficulty as to make a score by Elliott Carter appear to possess the clarity of one by Handel. The sheer difficulty of Guillou’s music debars it from entering the repertoires of many concert organists, but I would suggest those who are adventurous in their listening habits should persevere with the piece on this record, for who knows where it may lead them? They should be warned, however, that one of Guillou’s more recent compositions, for ten organs and ten organists, has yet to be performed, but they may be comforted by Peter Beavan’s statement that Guillou ‘is considered by some to be one of very few geniuses alive today’. With such an endorsement, I would suggest that one cannot remain entirely indifferent to Guillou’s art, and even those who cannot take his music at any price acknowledge his mastery of the instrument and of its vast repertoire (Guillou is 78, and has been organist of St Eustache in Paris for 45 years). He cannot be ignored, and in my opinion is a true successor to Messiaen.

Finally, we have Keith John’s very fine transcription of Pictures at an Exhibition in what is a very good performance. There have been several such transcriptions by other hands, but John’s is the best I have heard – indeed, I cannot imagine it being better done. What is also admirable is that John has gone from an authentic edition of the original piano score – unlike Ravel, who, unwittingly, included all of the errors in the early editions in his masterly orchestration – so that, in terms of the notes, we get a version based on what Mussorgsky actually wrote. Robert Houssart copes exceptionally well with John’s (and Mussorgsky’s!) demands within the rich acoustic of Gloucester Cathedral – he paces the music, with the cathedral’s surrebounding echoes, brilliantly, and the recording copes with the vast range of dynamics without any suggestion of strain. This is an impressive and totally convincing issue – it is not purely for organ lovers.

Robert Matthew-Walker