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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Organ Works Volume III
Livre du Saint Sacrement (1984)
CD 1              
Adoro te [4:08]
La Source de Vie [2:46]
Le Dieu caché [8:11]
Acte de foi [2:07]
Puer natus est nobis [6:06]
La manne et le Pain de Vie [11:21]
Les ressuscités et la lumière de Vie [4:27]
Institution de l'Eucharistie [6:15]
Les ténèbres [4:44]
La Résurrection du Christ [7:03]
L'apparition du Christ ressuscité à Marie-Madeleine [17:02]
CD 2
Le Transsubstantiation [6:27]
Les deux murailles d'eau [6:59]
Prière avant la communion [6:32]
La joie de la grâce [5:32]
Prière après la communion [6:29]
La Présence multipliée [2:59]
Offrande et Alleluia final [7:49]
Michael Bonaventure (organ)
rec. 9-10 January 2007, St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh
DELPHIAN DCD34076 [72:10 + 44:58]
Experience Classicsonline

One might hope for a raft of good Messiaen discs in this, the composer’s centenary year, but when it comes to his organ works there are already a number of fine cycles in the catalogue. Dame Gillian Weir’s, first released on Collins Classics and now available on Priory, is indispensable, as is Jennifer Bate’s on the bargain label Regis.
 
I was fortunate enough to hear the latter play Livre du Saint Sacrement at the Royal Festival Hall twenty years ago, in the presence of Messiaen himself. It was a deeply moving experience, made more so by the frail, stooped figure of the composer acknowledging the applause afterwards. A wonderful occasion, but really the RFH organ doesn’t have quite the heft and thrill of a large church instrument.
 
No such qualms about Weir’s performance (Priory PRCD 925/6). The mighty Frobenius in Århus Cathedral, Denmark, is as powerful a beast as one could hope for, producing sounds of staggering depth and breadth. Bate’s world-premiere recording (Regis RRC2052) is also played on a fine organ – the Cavaillé-Coll in Messiaen’s own church of Sainte-Trinité, Paris – while Michael Bonaventure has chosen a much more modern instrument, the 1992 Rieger in St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh.
 
Mystico-spiritual texts are central to Messiaen’s œuvre and Livre du Saint Sacrement is no exception. Such writings, by St Thomas Aquinas among others, provide the ‘programme for this work, which is divided into three distinct sections: the first four movements are devoted to the worship of Christ, the next seven to his life and the rest to that holiest of sacraments, the Eucharist.
 
As expected ‘I adore Thee, O hidden divinity!’ majors on majesty, ‘The Source of Life’ radiates calm, ‘The Hidden God’ has a questing, improvisatory air and ’Act of Faith’ has some wonderfully sustained passages and ecstatic outbursts. The Delphian recording is close and bright, the acoustic not especially reverberant, which tends to emphasise the clear-eyed nature of Bonaventure’s reading. He misses the deeper sense of mystery and devotion that both Bate and Weir capture so well, and even though his recording is the most modern it doesn’t yield to either of its rivals in terms of depth and detail.
 
In many ways Bonaventure’s performance sounds too generalised alongside Bate and Weir, who also find much more colour and variety in this kaleidoscopic score. But if it’s grandeur you’re after Weir is in a class of her own. Of course the recording, produced with the help of the BBC, has a lot in its favour, with floor-shaking pedals and a spacious acoustic. Even Messiaen’s speciality – those shimmering coronas of sound that seem to hang suspended – are well caught here.
 
Moving on to the second section Bonaventure produces some fluid playing in ‘Unto us a child is born’, but he finds little to celebrate. The organ doesn’t impress either, especially in the lower registers. Indeed, he makes those ethereal chords in ‘Manna and the Bread of Life’ sound rather lumpen – Bate and Weir are much more buoyant here – and those single notes that pierce the gloom like shafts of coloured light sound much too plain. That said, he does manage those high-lying figures that hover on the edge of audibility rather well, as indeed he does the jubilant opening to the seventh movement, ‘The Risen and the Light of Life’.
 
I’m delighted to say Bonaventure’s reading improves at this point, and he produces some thrilling sounds in ‘Institution of the Eucharist’. Here at last is plenty of colour and lustre, the music hypnotically beautiful. His plunge into ‘Darkness’ is simply awe-inspiring – much more so than either of his rivals – as is his performance of the coruscating ‘Resurrection of Christ’. Now this is much more like it, the Rieger organ finally coming into its own. And then there’s the gloriously affirmative close to this movement, simply breathtaking in its scale and splendour.
 
Jennifer Bate has the advantage of a reedier Cavaillé-Coll, which gives this music a uniquely piquant flavour. Clearly this is the kind of sound Messiaen would have been used to but there’s no doubt that the Frobenius and Rieger instruments have their strengths as well. Bate may seem just a little self-effacing compared with her rivals – she can sound a little dry and austere as well – but there’s little doubt she understands the structure of these works better than most. Just listen to her serene, deeply felt rendition of ‘Institution of the Eucharist’ and you begin to understand why the composer admired her playing so much.
 
Bonaventure does convey the air of simple piety in ’The Risen Christ appears to Mary Magdalene’, although in the more ecstatic moments his playing takes on a hard, diamond-like glitter that may not appeal to everyone. He can sound a little relentless when placed alongside Bate and Weir, both of whom are preferable here. That said the deep sense of reverence that he finds in the final bars – an extended musical genuflection – is very moving indeed.
 
In the strangely haunting twelfth movement, ‘The Transubstantiation’, Bonaventure articulates those stratospheric arpeggios with consummate skill, the organ producing some highly unusual sonorities. Those great ascending splashes of sound and the Stygian pedals of ’The Two Walls of Water’ are truly apocalyptic in his hands. It’s all too easy to be swept away and Bonaventure very nearly succumbs, especially in the great surge of sound at the end. Bate is not as visceral but make no mistake the French organ still lumbers and roars as only a Cavaillé-Coll can. In the end, though, Weir strikes the best balance, with a performance of great power and breadth.
 
The Danish instrument sounds almost ideal in the pre- and post-Communion prayers, the vast acoustic adding a profound sense of calm to Messiaen’s gentle cadences. By contrast Bonaventure is more up front, and although he doesn’t achieve the same degree of stillness he does coax some lovely sounds from the Rieger. In ‘The Joy of Grace’ he manages the string of trills very well; unfortunately Bate’s reading is marred by too much mechanical and ambient noise at this point. Once again Weir is peerless in her response to this transporting score.
 
The panoply of sound that is ‘The Multiplied Presence’ is admirably suited to the weight and breadth of the Århus instrument. Predictably the Rieger sounds massive, although Bonaventure can’t match the sheer heft and reverberation of Weir’s reading. Regrettably the Delphian recording becomes a wall of sound in the great outbursts; it’s hard on the ears but it will probably appeal to hifi buffs keen to give their woofers a workout.
 
Bonaventure’s reading of the jubilant final movement, ‘Offering and Final Alleluia’, is similarly afflicted. Perhaps he needs to be reminded that this isn’t Liszt, and that this music becomes noisy and incoherent when treated like a showpiece. Inevitably I returned to Gillian Weir to hear how it should be done. Goodness, there is ecstasy and jubilation aplenty there, and all presented without a hint of brashness or bravado.
 
Don’t be tempted to write off Bonaventure; his version of this mammoth score contains some good things, but just not enough of them. By contrast Weir and Bate offer illuminating, well-rounded and consistently satisfying accounts of this work. Initially I wasn’t persuaded by Gillian Weir’s Messiaen but I’ve since come to admire her thoughtful, implacable way with this music. As for Jennifer Bate her recording of Livre du Saint Sacrement will never replace that treasured RFH performance, but she demands respect and gratitude for her devotion and fidelity to Messiaen’s great scores.
 
I’m eager to hear the next instalment in Bonaventure’s cycle, but when it comes to Messiaen in general – and Livre du Saint Sacrement in particular – Weir and Bate still reign supreme.
 
Dan Morgan
 

 


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