> MESSIAEN Livre du Saint-Sacrament Page [PQ]: Classical Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-92)
Livre du Saint-Sacrament (1984)
Anne Page, organ
Recorded in Norwich Cathedral, February 2000
GUILD GMCD7228/9 [1:39’49"]



As this was recorded more than two years ago, Guild would have done well to release it a little more speedily, for it now faces the formidable competition of Jennifer Bate, whose Unicorn-Kanchana recording has been reissued on Regis, and Olivier Latry on DG. They both use classic French instruments replete with the registration colours which are so necessary for a successful realisation of Messiaen’s precise instructions. In this context, the choice of Norwich Cathedral’s instrument seems strange, to say the least. Not only does it lack those colours, but its reeds are so quintessentially English (and some of them out of tune) that they rob Messiaen’s music of much of its character and variety. The acoustic is small: by positioning at most two imcrophones near to the central rank of pipes Guild’s engineers have perhaps not made as much of the building’s resonance as they could, but the faraway sound for the opening of no.8, Institution de la Eucharistie, is beautifully judged.

Livre du Saint Sacrement uses a vast synthesis of Messiaen’s compositional tools to illustrate abstract concepts of faith (Acte de foi, no.1), events and narratives central to Christian history (the parting of the Red Sea, the Passion and Resurrection) and living ritual (the Eucharist). The arcane complexity of Livre d’orgue and other works from the 1950s and ’60s is jettisoned in favour of a more emotionally direct expression which recalls his earliest works, like La Nativité du Seigneur and L’Ascension, but far more subtly coloured by the compositional and practical experience gained over the intervening half-century. Its summatory character and affirmative, celebratory outlook finds an orchestral analogue in Eclairs sur L’Au Delà from eight years later.

Anne Page’s easy, flowing tempo for no.1 is typically well-judged of the cycle as a whole. Occasionally she presses ahead too hard: the ‘Puer Natus’ plainsong at the opening of no.5 is rushed, and she makes an unconvincingly sudden slowdown to enjoy the mystical coda of that movement.

The progress of ‘Resurrection’ through chromatic block chords to a radiant C major recalls the same harmonic journey taken more dourly by Apparition de l’Eglise Eternelle. Page paces it to perfection, side-stepping criticisms of the piece’s self-indulgence and moving surely through its extraordinary modulations until pausing on the penultimate chord just long enough for listeners to will its glorious resolution.

In the cycle’s centrepiece, a long narrative which depicts the risen Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene, Page builds up the initial tension effectively as downward figures turn on their harmonic axis to portray confusion, hope then realisation: it’s just a shame that the instrument’s capacity for colour can’t match Page’s skill at drawing it out. It copes better with the contracting and expanding chords of Murailles d’Eau, in which the Egyptians meet a watery end as waves of dissonance pile up in choppy bursts. By keeping a tight grip on pulse until the very end, where she eases into the crushing conclusion, Page draws attention away from the piece’s limited material towards the imagination of its manipulation.

The gorgeous Prière après la Communion is the one movement in which Page relaxes, with a tempo of 6’43" which approaches Bate’s premier recording of 7’03"; Latry is indecently fast here at 4’18" and not even Notre Dame’s marvellous voix célestes can stop this sounding a bit hurried. Subtitled with a quote from St. Bonaventure, ‘You are my perfume and my delight’, this adagio of heart-stopping gentleness can take as loving a treatment as performers will give it: Page is just the right side of restrained. I was distracted, here as elsewhere, by the occasional spread chord where the fingers don’t quite come down together.

Free of the heavy reverence which belabours other performances (Bostrom’s) and gentler than some recent versions like Weir’s and Latry’s, this is an affecting performance in which the principal shortcoming is the organ itself.

Peter Quantrill


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