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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1994)
L'Ascension (1933) [23:26]
Les corps glorieux (1939) [45:49]
rec. 11 July 2006, St. Paul’s Chapel, Columbia University,
New York City
the cover of the booklet, I’m not entirely sure if the phrase A
Mystic in the Making refers to Gail Archer or Olivier
Messiaen, who gets rather a low billing. Either way, mysticism
is not the highest on the list of attributes I would apply
to a description of this recording.
main comparisons have been with Jennifer Bate’s recording
of these two works, also coupled on one CD, (RRC 1087) but
currently available on a bargain Regis box (RRC
6001). I’m delighted to be able to announce having recently
acquired a copy of the Olivier Latry set on DG, but with
this box still at a hefty price for the complete works, comparison
would seem a little unfair. Either way, these earlier organ
works by Messiaen are less demanding in terms of detail,
the lack of which has been the main criticism of Bate’s recordings – in
this case made on the grand organ of St. Pierre de Beauvais,
a location as troubled by the rumble of passing traffic as
that of Columbia Uni.
Archer’s work in these pieces is in no way ‘bad’ as such.
If I have criticisms, then they are those of degree, rather
than meant as condemnation. A big part of the problem is
the organ in St. Pauls Chapel’, Columbia University in New
York City. I’m sure it is a wonderful instrument, and it
has a powerful tutti noise, but the tuning and colouration
at several points in Messiaen’s very sparing writing in parts
of these pieces is less than attractive. Better qualified
organ buffs than myself will no doubt be able to point out
the exact registers, positifs and pistons involved, but I’m
afraid that having had the luxury of living with European
instruments – whatever their individual character and foibles – mean
I need a lot of convincing when confronted with sounds from
the new world, and I don’t just mean the USA. If I didn’t
know better, I would say it needed a good re-tuning.
has a creditable technique, and some interesting points of
view on parts of these works. The opening of L’Ascension is
fine, if a little matter-of-fact, but then the resolutions
in the Majesté de Christ punch through with all the
subtlety of a Chinese takeaway falling through the bottom
of a brown paper bag. This sort-of unconnected-ness was something
which I found coming back throughout this disc. The ‘Serene
Alleluias’ of the second movement wander along pleasantly
enough. Transports de joie is impressive and grand,
well articulated – possibly even a little too well articulated,
with the transitional runs taking a little longer than usual.
The final Prière du Christ is nicely sustained, but
the tuning relationships on that organ do not make for ecstasy
I’m afraid, not for this lapsed churchgoer.
on with ungraceful swiftness to Les Corps Glorieux I
found it hard to apply the word Subtilité to
the first movement. Back to the matter-of-factness
in this reading, Archer seems to have an aversion to monody,
coming in a good minute even under Latry. Messiaen leaves
a great deal of freedom to the player with these works with
regard to tempo, so this need not be a problem, but both
the organ and the player conjoin to create something rather
more lumpy than refined – something which also applies particularly
to Combat de la mort et de la Vie, which is a bit
of a struggle, but possibly not quite as the title would
suggest it might be expressed. An interesting part of L’Ange
aux Parfums is the slowness with which Archer takes those
incredible two-part ‘moto perpetuo’ sections on the manual – different
certainly, but more barrel-organ than dispersing incense.
It’s at points like this when your friendly reviewer starts
to doubt his own objectivity, so, braving the inaccessible
cupboard-behind-the-sofa, I unearthed my beloved box of Messiaen
playing his own works, the Par lui-même set on EMI
(CZS 7 67400 2). My memory hadn’t played tricks, and indeed,
his playing in this passage is not dissimilar to Archer’s.
The difference is in the instrument and the acoustic, which
creates an entirely different effect. Messiaen’s recordings
are on an instrument in dire straits when it comes to repair,
the famous Cavaillé-Coll organ at Sainte-Trinité in Paris
in 1956, and are unfortunately on ropey old mono tapes, but
it’s never a bad idea to hear how the composer played his
own work. He comes in around 7 minutes longer than anyone
else over the piece as a whole so the jury is out when it
comes to tempi and all-round sustaining power, but if it’s
real mysticism you’re after, Messiaen’s your man.
Moving on to Force
et Agilité, Archer has some monumental power of her own
in this movement, which has excellent shape and sound up
until 03:00, the final voix humaine vibrato working
on something in me I’d rather keep for Benny Hill. The upper
register in the opening of Joie et Clarité is downright
nasty. The final Mystère is refined, and the remote
registration works well even if the 32’ kicks in a little
roughly at times, but for me it was too little too late.
Summing up, I would
be fascinated to hear Gail Archer performing this repertoire
on a more sympathetic instrument. The more I listened, the
more I became convinced that there was a talented player with
plenty to say, but that the vagaries of the organ on this recording
were too remote from Messiaen’s original intentions, or at
least too flat-footed to bring across the mystic element so
unfortunately trumpeted as the raison d’être of this disc.
I’m sure the instrument would give us some cracking Lefébure-Wély,
but for Messiaen, and for ‘A Mystic in the Making’ I would
have to recommend looking elsewhere.
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