> MESSIAEN Complete organ works [PQ]: Classical Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)

MusicWeb International One of the most grown-up review sites around 2024
60,000 reviews
... and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here Acte Prealable Polish CDs

Presto Music CD retailer
Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             


Olivier Latry
Recorded in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, July 2000
(six discs)

AmazonUK   £68.99

Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-92)
Complete organ works
Jennifer Bate
Recorded in Beauvais Cathedral 1980-82 and Eglise du Saint-Trinité, Paris, May 1987
REGIS RRC1086, 1087, 2051, 2052
(available separately or as a 6-disc boxed set)

AmazonUK  £25.99

Cycles of Messiaen’s organ works aren’t quite as much like buses as this double review would imply. True, we’ve been waiting ages for another one, especially one from Olivier Latry, but of the two that have turned up at once we’ve had the chance to get to know one already, for the Regis box is a repackaging of Bate’s pioneering cycle for Unicorn-Kanchana. All the same, only those who already have Bate’s complete cycle on CD can pass over this re-release, for it is offered at the price of two Unicorn-Kanchana discs (say, containing Livre du Saint Sacrement) and includes both Messiaen’s and Felix Aprahamian’s well-worn notes. Those who are familiar with the music are likely to be familiar with these too, so ubiquitous were they at one stage for lack of competition, but Aprahamian’s plain-spoken erudition and Messiaen’s curious prose, which manages to be at the same time brusquely descriptive and evocatively colourful, are certainly worth re-reading. While Paul Griffiths’s notes for the DG box are new, their lamentable brevity means any one movement is lucky to get a sentence to itself. As for so much else about the man and his music, Faber’s ‘Messiaen Companion’, edited by Peter Hill, is simply invaluable for going behind the notes and while some of Gillian Weir’s judgements on the aesthetic quality of individual works are at least questionable (Livre d’Orgue comes in for a bit of a pasting) her immense practical experience of the works and insightful, musicianly writing ensures that you come away much the wiser about what remains an extraordinarily varied corpus.

I’ll pre-empt anyone looking for a quick either-or recommendation: both sets are outstandingly well played. Both also deal with Messiaen’s different musical languages, periods and styles with sensitivity and imagination. If you think a string quartet has to travel a long way from the darting brilliance of Beethoven’s op.18 set to the otherworldly sound and fury of op.135, how much further Bate and Latry have to extend their sympathies and technique here. Messiaen’s earliest published work, Le Banquet Céleste (1932), is a classic of simple mysticism, slow-moving chords with the radiance shining from added sixths and sharp-saturated key signatures; Livre d’Orgue (1951) charts territory that sounds defiantly modernist even today with its concluding Soixante-Quatre Durées, an infamous masterpiece of rhythmic serialism; the apparently compendious nature of Livre du Saint Sacrement (1984) hides what can still be identified as a distinctive ‘late’ Messiaen style. The analogy also holds good for the tripartite bundling of the cycles – op.95 and the Verset pour la Fête de la Dédicace (1960) blur the boundaries slightly, but the merits of and differences between Bate’s and Latry’s approaches to the cycle are most evident when considering it in three chunks.

As the cycle most often played by organists who don’t venture further into Messiaen’s music, La Nativité du Seigneur (1935) receives performances that in both cases reveal the difference between knowing a piece of music and knowing the composer who wrote it (Simon Preston’s Argo recording used to be touted as definitive but the passage of time now makes it seem little more than flashy). Bate chooses consistently faster tempos that reveal the kinship between Messiaen’s early style and other, more conservative giants of French organ writing; Widor, Tournemire, Dupré. In this her approach is more similar to other organists than Latry’s, whose interpretation consistently stresses that although Messiaen’s music emerges from this world, its composer was already possessed of a quite different pair of ears. The Indian rhythms of the cycle’s still centre, La Verbe, meander more meditatively, though no less precisely, in Latry’s hands. Dieu parmi nous closes the cycle with an epic grandeur that to some ears will sound a mite stolid after Bate’s more dramatic course. Sometimes you may choose to hear the piece as a brilliant toccata firmly within the French tradition; at others you may want to sense its reaching towards a more mystical, modern way of translating religious sensibility into music. I can only suggest you hear both.

If my taste inclines towards Latry in Nativité, it swings to Bate in Les Corps Glorieux ((1939), principally for her smoother narrative flow and surer handling of that work’s pivotal movement, Combat de la Mort et de la Vie. As in La Verbe, a fast, minatory opening section builds up tension, which is then cut short and slowly dissipated by a long, luminous meditation. Latry’s grandeur spills over into grandiosity as his leisurely tempo loses the work’s pulse. This seems pretty crucial to me if for no other reason than that its composer was so fanatical about a feeling for rhythm, to be observed both in his works and his coaching of performers. His own tempo for La Verbe is almost as slow as Latry’s, but the pulse never disappears. Bate refuses to succumb to the meditation’s possibilities for somnolence and the result seems to move and yet stand still in just the right way. Likewise, the long phrases of ‘Prière du Christ montant à son Père’ which concludes l’Ascension (1933/4) must convey the sense of Christ, as it were, rising rather than hovering tantalisingly in mid-air. Both Latry and (unexpectedly) Boulez (in the work’s orchestral version) misjudge this while Bate’s purposeful phrases spin effortlessly towards their inevitably serene conclusion. (If you want to hear Christ not so much rising as zooming towards his father, try Stokowski on Cala. Shockingly ardent: Messiaen was reportedly and unsurprisingly disapproving).

Apparition de l’Eglise Eternelle (1932) has the pulse written into the fabric of the movement, and with its ‘Très lent’ indication this startling answer to Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie holds less possibility for getting it ‘wrong’. Bate and Latry both grade the crescendo nicely and (more difficult) return to the work’s original, gloomy piano at the end without too many clunky registral changes. I happen to prefer Gillian Weir’s more legato phrasing at the work’s C major midpoint; Latry is quite choppy here and whatever Bate did is rounded away by the cavernous Beauvais acoustic.

In many ways, this is the nub of the matter. I could compare individual movements until my keyboard cried for mercy, but the very instrument used and the acoustic surrounding it do, in this case, play a huge part in deciding preferences, especially when the playing is so confident and (largely) accurate in both cases. Bate’s Beauvais recordings were well known, when they originally appeared, for their huge resonance and dynamic range (my LP player wasn’t having any of Bate’s Dieu parmi nous, scored deeply into the vinyl, and let me know this with hideous skippings and scrapings) and while this redounded greatly to the recording producer Bob Auger’s credit, I found myself wondering just how many notes I could discern amid the Danien-Gonzalez clamour. CD remastering has improved matters, but I still find listening to stretches of fast music on the Bate set frustrating because of the lack of clarity. Les yeux dans les roues from Livre d’Orgue is another toccata form but a world away from the splendour of its formal forebears. The page is black with notes, and the Isaiah quotation which precedes it makes clear that the piece should engender a sense of breathless terror. Bate fails in this, not through lack of virtuosity but simply because you can’t make out what’s going on. The contrast with Latry couldn’t be clearer, especially as their tempos are identical (the extra three seconds on Bate’s recording can be attributed to the echo!). DG’s recording team in Notre Dame used an unprecedented twelve microphones and must have spent an inordinate length of time at the mixing desks, but their efforts have produced a true sonic spectacular, full of depth and delicacy. It bears only a resemblance to the Cavaillé-Coll instrument you hear when visiting Notre Dame, as there is no place in the building from which you can hear all the ranks with the transparency achieved here, but it reveals the harmonic and rhythmic complexities of Messiaen’s music to a degree only previously realised by the Collins’ engineers for Gillian Weir. That was on a very different instrument (a Frobenius) in a very different and much less resonant acoustic (Arhus cathedral) which gives much more ‘help’ to the engineers while reducing the perfume available to performers. The Danien-Gonzalez in Beauvais naturally has more of that French perfume (heart-melting voix célestes in the Prière après la Communion from Livre du Saint-Sacrament) as well as a pedal bassoon of impressive strength and quick response: the low Cs which form the firmament of Apparition’s climax are just as clear for Bate as they are for Latry, though one senses that the DG engineers have done some tweaking to make it so.

The agility of the instrument’s response to the player becomes even more vital in the middle-period works, when page after page of abrupt registral changes and lightning-quick birdsong demand fabulous virtuosity from both. Messe de la Pentecôte and Livre d’Orgue form with the orchestral Chronochromie a triptych of works central to Messiaen’s life, chronologically and musically. They are his boldest and most imposing, containing few points of repose or hooks on which an unfamiliar listener may hang an ear. By that same token they also offer richer rewards to the adventurous listener than almost anything else in Messiaen. The premiere of Livre d’Orgue almost didn’t happen, so great was the crush of people trying to squeeze into the church in Stuttgart where Pierre Boulez had organised the concert. Messiaen was unable to enter the church himself and had to find a side-door: I wonder if the cycle will see similar enthusiasm ever again? Though Latry and Bate take roughly the same time over both the Messe and the Livre, I frequently found that Bate felt quicker because she doesn’t articulate as clearly as Latry. Sometimes, as in the Pièces en Trio of the Livre, it’s a matter of taking the bizarre leaps and note values and apparent disjunction's at face value and playing them absolutely straight, as Latry does. Sometimes, as in the Tongues of Fire introit in the Messe, it’s a matter of choosing varied enough registration that will make the different lines stand out from each other (Thomas Trotter is particularly successful at this in the Messe, helped by a forward Decca recording at the Cavaillé-Coll of St Pierre de Douai). Like Soixante-quatre Durées which ends the Livre, the short Verset pour la Fete de la Dédicace may never yield up its enigmas to me; I simply enjoy the noises it makes, and I enjoy Latry’s noises more than any other version, because he seems to trust Messiaen the most.

The pendulum that has been swinging in terms of the two players’ approach to the oeuvre is now past the midpoint, and it is Bate who consistently takes more time in the two ‘late’ cycles, Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité (1969) and Livre du Saint Sacrement. The Meditations feature (or seem to) more birdsong than any other work (four of the nine movements end with the plaintive song of the yellowhammer) and I find Latry more consistently effective at giving wing (sorry) to what look on the page like endless streams of unpredictable note clusters and phrasing them in a realistically avian way. Notre Dame also offers more colours on the manual stops with which he can distinguish the many different species featured. Bate scores in the work’s sections of Gregorian chant, like the opening of no.2, Dieu est Saint, where a spacious tempo feels essential for creating the right sense of majesty: if I were singing the chants at the speeds Latry sets I’d feel rushed, and he sometimes sounds as if he is embarrassed by their inclusion. However Latry is far more relaxed (3’55" to Bate’s 2’38") in no.3, La Relation réele en Dieu est réellement identique a l’essence, which enables him to unravel the convoluted three-voice counterpoint as though nothing could be easier to play or to listen to.

Bate gave the premiere of Livre du Saint Sacrement (the only organ work for which the composer did not do this for himself) and her subsequent recording, the work’s first, lasts almost 130 minutes. Hans-Ola Ericsson was also coached extensively by Messiaen in this work and his two recordings (on Jade and BIS) take around two hours, suggesting that he preferred spacious performances. Latry takes a little over 100 and rarely feels rushed and most performers in the last ten years have agreed with him (Gillian Weir, Stephen Cleobury and Anne Page among others). In these last two mighty cycles Messiaen adds to his compositional armoury the technique of a langage communicable, whereby theological concepts (and sometimes whole tracts of Aquinas) are literally spelt out in the music using a system of notation. Important words like Dieu are assigned their own phrase; all the letters of the alphabet are given a pitch, duration, dynamic and registration. To say that this results in composing by numbers would be grossly simplistic, but I think there are legitimate concerns about the way that the composer used various techniques or ‘found’ musical objects (the langage communicable, birdsong, indian rhythms, plainsong) to, as it were, do a lot of the creative work for him. Messiaen himself talked of the Livre du Saint Sacrement as a summation of the experience he had gained from improvising every Sunday at the Eglise de la Saint-Trinité where he was organist for over 60 years until shortly before his death. This sense of taking what was appropriate (the Gospel for the day, a bird he had recently heard) and bending it to his uses with a carefully honed musical language is a skill in itself, but it becomes more and more apparent in the works he wrote after the completion of the monumental Saint François d’Assise in 1982. He worried he would never compose again – and yet the two hours of Livre were put together in a matter of months.

Whether Messiaen approved or not, the large-scale set pieces which form the pillars of the cycle have a narrative that is more evident in Latry’s (and Weir’s) recording. Even the obviously meditative movements like Institution de la Eucharistie don’t need the time that Bate lavishes upon them, though hers is a beautiful achievement in its own right and benefits enormously from being recorded not in Beauvais but in Saint-Trinité itself. Bate certainly makes something gloriously imposing of the sequence of rainbow coloured chords which flash across the keyboard in La Resurrection, but Latry discovers a more impetuous joy with shorter phrase lengths.

If a further reason were needed to recommend Latry above Bate, and indeed above the rest of the competition, it can be found in his inclusion of two pieces only recently published and previously unheard since their composition in the early 30s; and the Monodie of 1963. None of these short works says anything not expressed elsewhere, but the Offrande au Saint Sacrement is attractive and would make a convenient standby for an organist when leafing through the library for communion music. Newcomers to this body of music may fight shy of committing themselves to the outlay required for Latry, and they will gain many hours of pleasure and unfailingly sensitive playing from Jennifer Bate. Those who invest in Olivier Latry’s set will gain all that plus the thrill of the vivid recording and his dramatic instincts. This sets the standard.

Peter Quantrill


Return to Index

Error processing SSI file