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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908 - 1992)
L’Ascension (1934) [23.35]
Livre d’Orgue (1951) [44.31]
Dame Gillian Weir, organ of the Århus Cathedral, Denmark
Notes (27 pages) in English including full organ specifications.
Originally recorded for Collins Classics in association with BBC Radio, 25 Feb 1994.
Organ Works Volume 4
PRIORY PRCD 924 [69.31]


Comparison recordings:

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.

Paul Shoemaker



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