L’Ascension — Four
Symphonic Meditations. Stokowski, LSO
CALA CACD 0523
This disk, formerly
available on the much lamented Collins
Classics label, arrives emblazoned with
all the superlatives from the reviews
of that issue: "major recording
triumph of the century ... preferred
version...virtuosity and control ...
staggering ... Magnifique!"
that last from the composer’s widow.
I would have nothing either to add or
detract from this cornucopia of praise.
I enjoy and admire
Messiaen’s music very much, but neither
of these works are particularly accessible.
L’Ascension was originally written
for orchestra and was recorded by Leopold
Stokowski twice, in 1947 with the NYPO
and again in 1970 with the LSO. The
composer’s organ transcription dates
from the following year. It consists
of four "meditations" a term
(along with "regards") used
by Messiaen to describe his free and
individually structured movements —
what another composer might call nocturnes
or fantasies. One might best
approach this work by first hearing
the orchestral version. In fact it is
at first difficult to see that they
are the same work at all, Stokowski’s
orchestral performance being vastly
more interesting and accessible.
Dame Gillian presents
the long crescendo which begins L’Ascension
very skilfully and with great effect;
the subsequent entry of full organ is
noble and grand without any thickness.
The associated rapid passages are gossamer
light, played with a confident virtuosity
and control which allows full concentration
on their effect and colour.
Messiaen’s music ranges
from the most sublimely mysterious to
the most raucously noisy, seemingly
with little attempt at graceful transitions.
His celebrated "birdsong"
imitations don’t really sound very much
like any bird that flew during the last
20 million years. At his best he is
very, very good, even sublime; at his
most difficult he can be bewildering,
and the Livre d’Orgue
consistently bewilders. If you are not
yet completely sold on Messiaen’s organ
music, one of the other volumes in this
series may be a better place to begin.