Organist makes her music sing

Recitals: Marie-Claire Alain, visiting the Peabody, has gained a reputation for her influential and widely respected artistry.

March 01, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

As a young man, Beethoven played the "king of instruments" - as Mozart called the organ - but found his nerves couldn't handle its power. "I should place an organist who is master of the instrument at the very head of virtuosos," Beethoven said.

That's exactly where a lot of organists and organ aficionados place Marie-Claire Alain, who has been visiting the Peabody Institute this week and will give recitals there today and Sunday, and a master class tomorrow. She first visited Peabody in 1999 to play the school's then-new $668,000 Holtkamp organ.

"I greatly admire her as the finest organist in the world," says Donald Sutherland, coordinator of the organ department at Peabody.

"She is an example to all of us, for her artistry, her extraordinary sense of touch and rhythm, and her changing ideas. She is always looking at music in a fresh way."

Alain has been winning accolades since her first recital in Paris 52 years ago. Now 75, the petite French woman remains at the top of her profession. More than 200 recordings, including the complete works of Bach, Mendelssohn and Cesar Franck, attest to her technical and musical gifts; her scholarly work has had considerable influence on the way organists perform Bach's organ music.

And she is easily the world's leading authority on the music of her brother, Jehan Alain, one of the 20th century's greatest organists and organ composers, who was killed in action in the early months of World War II.

Marie-Claire grew up in a house with its own organ, specially designed by the patriarch of the family, Albert Alain, Jehan's first teacher. Not only was Jehan an organist, but so was another brother, Olivier; a sister, Marie-Odile, studied the instrument as well. (Music by Albert and Jehan Alain, along with Bach and Franck, will be featured on the Peabody recitals.)

With all of that competition at home, it's not surprising that Marie-Claire didn't even want to become a musician at first. "Besides, my parents said that I was not very gifted," Alain says with a laugh in her lilting, soft-grained French accent.

But after the death of Marie-Odile in a mountaineering accident in 1937 and Jehan's death in 1940, Marie-Claire had a change of heart.

"I decided I should be a musician to carry on the tradition of my family," she says. "At first, I was interested in becoming a pianist. But it turned out differently, and everything went very well. The organ is such a marvelous instrument - it's like an orchestra - and there is such a great repertoire to play."

But one family tradition that Alain didn't continue was composing. "My father was a composer; my two brothers were composers," she says. "I figured that was enough. My main pleasure was to play."

A prime outlet for that pleasure was Bach, whose organ works remain unsurpassed in musical or intellectual depth. But when Alain began studying Bach, large-scale, slow-tempo performances of his music were common. Transparent textures, dancing rhythms and other authentic characteristics were widely unappreciated.

Travels to Holland in the 1950s exposed Alain to original baroque organs; playing early music on such instruments revealed a lot about sound and style. Further studies, Alain says, "completely changed my mind" about how to approach baroque music.

"She was giving what are now called `historically informed' performances before it was fashionable," Sutherland says.

Yet, Alain will have none of the narrow-mindedness sometimes associated with the authenticity movement today. "I still enjoy hearing Bach played on the piano, which is not authentic, or played by a large orchestra," Alain says. "And why not? Bach doesn't have to be played only by specialists."

While such specialists have been known to reduce the amount of personality brought to baroque music, Alain is again flexible. "In early music, of course the performer can still interpret," she says. "You always have to put part of yourself into the music."

Alain has another goal.

"We must make music sing," she says. "We must try to imitate the human voice as much as possible. The voice is the most beautiful instrument. Many keyboardists forget this."

Interpreting music on the organ may seem, to some ears, as a very simple business. After all, even Bach was quoted as saying, "There's nothing to it; you only have to hit the right notes and the instrument plays itself."

Bach was no doubt kidding, but many people have expressed such a view. Alain's artistry refutes it.

"The idea that the organ isn't capable of nuances is wrong," she says. "It's just that some organists have forgotten that they can make nuances. We must not play all the notes the same way; we can make nuances with our fingers - and we must do this.

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