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Herman van Vliet’s pioneering five-volume survey of Alexandre Guilmant’s Pièces dans différents styles receives a somewhat delayed reissue as a box-set on the Dutch Festivo label more than a decade after they were recorded in the first three years of the present century. Vliet’s survey was the first (and so far the only) to record all 66 works in the series, and that in itself makes this a valuable reissue. It also serves to remind one time and again of the many attractions of a composer who, as principal organist in La Trinité, Paris, for 30 years from 1871 and who contributed to the foundation of the city’s Schola Cantorum, was once at the very heart of French organ music.

Collected into 18 books, the Pièces dans différents styles span more than three decades, beginning in 1861 with op.15 and concluding with op.75 in 1892. Presented by Vliet in chronological order, what emerges is a voice shaped by classical approaches to structure and harmony, infused by a romantic sensibility and expressed, in the Pièces at least, by picturesque miniatures that gently but firmly push at boundaries with often surprising and appealing results.

On offer is an occasionally dizzying array of styles, principally marches, scherzos, pastorals and noëls, some of which were originally composed for harmonium and all designed with the Grand-Orgue in mind. Vliet proves a nimble and nuanced guide, tracing the over-arching trajectory (and countless digressions) of the Pièces with obvious conviction in their merit and alert attention to the demands of music, in which an ingenious fugue bumps up alongside a pensive meditation and tender stillness sits becalmed alongside exuberant joyfulness with an almost gleeful sense of abandon.

Dating from 1888, the Cavaillé-Coll Organ of Saint-Sernin, Toulouse, is a thoroughly apt choice of instrument, one perfectly suited to Guilmant’s sound and temperament. Against the more familiar symphonically inclined sonatas, this set provides a very different image of Guilmant and one well worth getting to know.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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