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Marie Claire Alain on Bach’s Toccata & Fugue

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Marie Claire Alain on Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D minor BWV 565 : two vinyl recordings

A friend of mine gave me a present at a recent audiophile meeting. It was Alain’s 1982 recording of Bach’s most famous organ piece which appeared on Erato’s celebratory vinyl catalog of 300 years since Bach’s birth. The commemorative LP of 1985 has catalog number ERA 9266, it is a digital recording and it is the same recording which appears under NUM 75053 on Erato’s catalogue of 1983. This recording appears either of the black or on the green/white label. What a fortunate coincidence I thought since this year showed the demise of one of the world’s greatest organists, Marie Claire Alain. And immediately I remembered that I had in my collection the Alain’s first stereo recording of the Toccata also on Erato under catalogue number STE 50070. This is a recording of 1965 on Erato’s pink/white label. Collectors should note that this performance was later reissued under catalogue number STU 70070 (blue/white label) with an inferior sound; the latter LP is also less collectible. Time for a vinyl comparison!

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Alain recorded Bach’s entire cycle for organ three times, the two first of which appeared on vinyl. The third cycle appears on CD, and the Toccata BWV 565 on Erato 4509-94812-2, which is not yet in my collection. When Marie Claire Alain was asked about the differences in approach between the three cycles, she clearly preferred her last cycle as the most musicological in approach, and she characterized her first cycle as “instinctive”, her second as “more considered” and the third as having the benefit of a long life study and research. And this confirmed once more my general view of recordings of classical music: the more studied and thoughtful a performance is, the less successful it is. To me instinct, freshness and spontaneity have been the backbone of a successful classical recording...

And it proved that Alain in 1965 had the right instinct to produce a superb performance. The lines are clear and easy to follow, and the performance is a joy from the beginning to end. The chords are registered perfectly and so are the pianissimo parts of the work. Spontaneity, clarity of fingering and pedaling and fluidity of playing go together with a sense of solemnity, which are all missing in the later recording. And although the impact of the digital recording makes for a more impressive sound at the end of the chords, this is due to the heavy reverberation of the recording which renders the sound less clear and cloudy and the performance dull and, yes, considered. Rightly, the first cycle, both in terms of performance and sound, won the Grand Prix du Disque in 1960. And this performance of 1965 is a great achievement because it is ages away from the didactic and pedagogic playing of Helmut Walcha of the same period on Archiv.

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Erato (pink and white label) – STE 50070, reissued on Erato STU 70070 (blue and whilte label).
Erato NUM 75053 (green and white label, black label) reissued on ERA 9266.

by Epaminondas Tsandis

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