I was in Notre-Dame last year when somebody, irresponsibly
I thought at the time, released a wild beast amongst all the tourists
and worshippers. A visiting choir from Bristol had just sung Rutter’s
The Lord Bless you and Keep You when the air was rent with an
enraged roaring and growling. No, not a rampaging buffalo; Olivier Latry,
improvising in full flood. I stood transfixed; it was blood-curdling
yet thrilling, and revealed at first-hand one of the great glories of
the French organ tradition, that of extemporisation. It also revealed
the stark magnificence of the Notre-Dame organ, and the qualities that
make it the ideal instrument, and Latry the ideal executant, for Messiaen’s
great body of work. It originated in 1402, though the instrument we
have today really dates back to Thierry’s reconstruction of 1733, and
has had many additions and adaptations since that day. All of this is
explained in the highly informative booklet that accompanies these CDs.
Despite the exuberant physicality of Latry’s playing
on that particular occasion, he displays many other qualities in this
fine set. There is subtlety and refinement, as you would expect from
a Frenchman playing the music of a great French master, and this aspect
is particularly noteworthy in La Nativité du Seigneur,
the earliest music in the collection. There is also mystery and
contemplation, and Latry explores this to great effect in Les Corps
I should come clean at this point and admit that I
do have a problem with Messiaen. There can often be a cloying, almost
sentimental quality in his music, which of course goes hand in hand
with its specifically Catholic symbolism. I recognise this, but do not,
personally, like it or find it especially attractive. On the other hand,
I find much more interest and satisfaction in the originality of the
Mess de la Pentecôte, especially its final Sortie,
or the rhythmic experiments of the Livre d’orgue. And the
wonders of the Notre-Dame instrument are always there to amaze and delight.
Track 7 on CD2 is a fine case in point, the Combat de la mort et
de la vie (Battle of life and death) from Les Corps Glorieux.
The bass reeds at the beginning snarl like a primeval leviathan,
leading to a truly horrifying sequence of dense dissonances. This subsides
into one of those timeless meditations so typical of the composer, which
slowly ascends to the highest registers of the instrument.
It is clear that immense care has been taken by the
engineers to capture as perfectly as possible this and all the amazing
sounds and textures that Messiaen calls for. Another attraction of this
set is that it includes some pieces that have not appeared in the catalogue
before – the Offrande au Saint Sacrement, the Prélude,
and the Monodie of 1963.
This set is a celebration not only of one of the significant
major bodies of music of the 20th century, but also of the playing of
one of the great modern masters of the organ.
by Peter Quantrill