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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Lammas

Sound Messianic
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)

Les Corps Glorieux (1939) [46’36].
César Auguste FRANCK (1822-1890)

Choral No. 1 in E (1890) [12’52].
Jamie Hitel (organ).
Rec. Wicks Organ Co. Opus 6320 organ, St Paul’s Episcopal Church, Akron, Ohio, USA, 12, 15-16 May 2002. DDD
LAMMAS LAMM145D [59’28]


An intriguing disc. The coupling of Messiaen and the Belgian composer César Franck is an inspired one. Messiaen’s Les Corps Glorieux (‘The Glorified Bodies’) is a heady, almost intoxicating statement of Roman Catholic mysticism. Written when the composer was in his twenties, the piece is subtitled, ‘Seven Brief Visions of the Life of the Resurrected’. Jamie Hitel, in the Messiaen at least, is fully committed and inside the musical sound-world. Musically, the Franck complements it beautifully.

The first three movements centre around spiritual peace. The first movement, ‘Subtilité des Corps Glorieux’ (‘The Subtleness of the Glorified Bodies’, as translated in the booklet) is pure monody. Freed from earthly concerns, the liberated bodies can float freely, as indeed the melody twists and turns. Immediately identifiable as Messiaen, the music’s own hypnotic journey gives out the musical language horizontally: the ear is therefore fully attuned for the vertical sonorities of ‘Les Eaux de la Grâce’ (‘The Waters of Grace’). This refers to the river of grace running through the Heavenly City, and this gentle polymodal vision is held at a restrained dynamic level, at once reverential yet holding within it the capacity to unleash spiritual ecstasy.

The same shadowy aura shines around ‘L’Ange aux Parfums’ (‘The Angel of the Incense’). This is music replete with half-voices, silvery and other-worldly. The first three movements act in contrast to the ‘Combat de la Mort et de la Vie’ (‘The Struggle between Death and Life’), the longest section of Corps Glorieux. The writing is intensely pictorial in the first part of this movement, a Messiaen battle scene, a struggle against the inevitability of Death. Hitel delivers the fast-moving chords with consummate virtuosity. Visceral and physically involving (it is like being pummelled for four minutes by blocks of sound), the contrasting and longer section radiates serenity. This is extended peace, the harmonies almost unbearably tender.

The next two movements concentrate on various attributes of the glorified bodies. ‘Force et Agilité des Corps Glorieux’ (‘The Power and Agility of the Glorified Bodies’) begins like a call-to-arms. These beautiful angels are possessed of a strong backbone of grace. Again monody is used, here with a supple rhythm that conveys the joy of movement. The power of Messiaen’s sensitivity to intervallic colour is shown at its best in the sixth movement, ‘Joie et Clarté des Corps Glorieux’ (The Joy and Radiance of the Glorified Bodies’). There is a definable contained ecstasy in the harmonies which makes this compelling.

The Mystery of the Holy Trinity (‘Le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité’) is a concept that was close to the composer’s heart. Number symbolism (three, of course) is paramount here in this final section. The music itself is delicate, almost preternaturally fragile (as the booklet notes say, ‘It seems to call us from beyond’). The meditational aspect of this movement almost seems to take the experience to a different plane. Hitel’s focused concentration is all one could ask for.

The coupling of Franck’s Choral No. 1 in E works very well musically, although there is too little gap between the two pieces on this disc. One of Franck’s last statements, the trithematic Choral (initially dedicated to Alexandre Guilmant, then in the final printed score to Eugène Gigout) is difficult to bring off. It can so easily sound diffuse, as indeed alas it does here. The most successful part is towards the end, a majestic chorale (around 11’25) and a jubilant close, but the end impression is that Hitel does not quite understand this elusive piece. André Isoir’s 1975 recording on Calliope (CAL9920/1, available via LudwigvanWeb) is far superior. Isoir is more flowing, with a more identifiable sense of direction and a clearer idea of form. Under his fingers, the close is truly resplendent and climactic.

The recording on the new Lammas disc is fine and clear and the organ is obviously an instrument of some majesty. I was not aware Akron, Ohio, was famous for anything other than founding Alcoholics Anonymous. They obviously own a fine piece of organery, too.

Colin Clarke

 



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