Jehan Titelouze formed one of the building blocks of the French organ school. Best known in his day as a master organ builder, Titelouze's publications of sacred organ music from the 1620s were first republished in the 1890s and have provided inspiration to French organists ever since; witness Marcel Dupré's 1950 composition Le Tombeau de Titelouze. Therefore, it's a little surprising that ATMA Classique's Jehan Titelouze: Les Hymnes, featuring organist Yves-G. Préfontaine at the 1699 Tribout organ at Saint-Martin de Seurre in Côte d'Or appears to be the first complete recording of Titelouze's Hymnes de L'Église (1624) to appear on compact disc. A little digging reveals that Joseph Payne recorded this cycle for Naxos in 2004; however, by 2009 it had yet to appear.
Titelouze's Hymnes de L'Église is a collection of versets to 12 standard Latin hymns, with three or four versets per hymn, sort of like a chorale variation treatment, except that the source tunes are not Lutheran chorales and each verset is designed to alternate with a verse of a given hymn. The way Préfontaine deals with this unusual liturgical format is to bring in a male choir to sing the hymn verses as unaccompanied plainchant, Les Chantres des Roy. The king's coffers must have been at low ebb when this group was assembled; it's just three men and they sound like two. Likewise, they are a little uncertain in pitch at times and tend to sing a little flat here and there. Préfontaine offers thanks to Les Chantres des Roy for "their professionalism and availability," but from the sound of it one might conclude that the latter attribute was more of a factor than the former. A preferable alternative might have been to simply play the verses on the organ pedal, doubling it on different manuals to provide variety.
Nevertheless, this magnificent instrument -- and the way Préfontaine plays it -- more than makes up for the deficit. The 1699 Tribout has a gorgeous, creamy reed stop that serves as the basic sound for the performance, which Préfontaine varies with bold and archaic combinations, including a trumpet stop that will tear your head off. All of this works well; Titelouze was an eccentric and transitional character in music, who by 1624 had the basic Baroque organ sound in mind but composed with one foot in Renaissance harmonic practice. Titelouze's canonic procedures still cause some head-scratching among theorists and his liberal use of dissonance, according to Titelouze himself, was employed in "a novel and unfamiliar way." Préfontaine works to keep Titelouze's various tangled polyphonic lines clear and reasonably apart, as dense and thick as they are, and his choices in registration and tempo are on the money. So, if one wants to traverse back to near the beginning of the French organ school, on an organ that is close to the time of the music itself, then ATMA Classique's Jehan Titelouze: Les Hymnes will provide the requisite adventure in time travel. However, in long-term listening, one might want to reprogram the CD player to skip the tracks featuring the hapless choir.