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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1994)
Complete Organ Works

CD 1 [72:43]
Apparition de l'Église Éternelle
La Nativité du Seigneur

CD 2 [78:34]
Le banquet céleste
Offrande au Saint Sacrement
Diptyque
Les corps glorieux (1939) Books 1-3

CD 3 [72:30]
Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité

CD 4 [75:45]
Prélude pour orgue
Verset pour la fête de la dédicace
Monodie
L'Ascension (Four symphonic meditations for orchestra)
Messe de la Pentecôte

CD 5 [74:55]
Livre d'orgue

CD 6 [71:38]
Livre du Saint Sacrement

Olivier Latry, organ
Recorded July 2000, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris
DG 471 481-486 [6CDs]

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 Glorieux.

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.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

See also review by Peter Quantrill


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