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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1994)
L'Ascension (1933) [23:26]
Les corps glorieux (1939) [45:49]
Gail Archer (organ)
rec. 11 July 2006, St. Paul’s Chapel, Columbia University, New York City
MEYER MEDIA MM07007 [69:15]



From the cover of the booklet, I’m not entirely sure if the phrase A Mystic in the Making refers to Gail Archer or Olivier Messiaen, who gets rather a low billing. Either way, mysticism is not the highest on the list of attributes I would apply to a description of this recording.
 
My main comparisons have been with Jennifer Bate’s recording of these two works, also coupled on one CD, (RRC 1087) but currently available on a bargain Regis box (RRC 6001). I’m delighted to be able to announce having recently acquired a copy of the Olivier Latry set on DG, but with this box still at a hefty price for the complete works, comparison would seem a little unfair. Either way, these earlier organ works by Messiaen are less demanding in terms of detail, the lack of which has been the main criticism of Bate’s recordings – in this case made on the grand organ of St. Pierre de Beauvais, a location as troubled by the rumble of passing traffic as that of Columbia Uni.
 
Gail Archer’s work in these pieces is in no way ‘bad’ as such. If I have criticisms, then they are those of degree, rather than meant as condemnation. A big part of the problem is the organ in St. Pauls Chapel’, Columbia University in New York City. I’m sure it is a wonderful instrument, and it has a powerful tutti noise, but the tuning and colouration at several points in Messiaen’s very sparing writing in parts of these pieces is less than attractive. Better qualified organ buffs than myself will no doubt be able to point out the exact registers, positifs and pistons involved, but I’m afraid that having had the luxury of living with European instruments – whatever their individual character and foibles – mean I need a lot of convincing when confronted with sounds from the new world, and I don’t just mean the USA. If I didn’t know better, I would say it needed a good re-tuning.
 
Archer has a creditable technique, and some interesting points of view on parts of these works. The opening of L’Ascension is fine, if a little matter-of-fact, but then the resolutions in the Majesté de Christ punch through with all the subtlety of a Chinese takeaway falling through the bottom of a brown paper bag. This sort-of unconnected-ness was something which I found coming back throughout this disc. The ‘Serene Alleluias’ of the second movement wander along pleasantly enough. Transports de joie is impressive and grand, well articulated – possibly even a little too well articulated, with the transitional runs taking a little longer than usual. The final Prière du Christ is nicely sustained, but the tuning relationships on that organ do not make for ecstasy I’m afraid, not for this lapsed churchgoer.
 
Moving on with ungraceful swiftness to Les Corps Glorieux I found it hard to apply the word Subtilité to the first movement. Back to the matter-of-factness in this reading, Archer seems to have an aversion to monody, coming in a good minute even under Latry. Messiaen leaves a great deal of freedom to the player with these works with regard to tempo, so this need not be a problem, but both the organ and the player conjoin to create something rather more lumpy than refined – something which also applies particularly to Combat de la mort et de la Vie, which is a bit of a struggle, but possibly not quite as the title would suggest it might be expressed. An interesting part of L’Ange aux Parfums is the slowness with which Archer takes those incredible two-part ‘moto perpetuo’ sections on the manual – different certainly, but more barrel-organ than dispersing incense. It’s at points like this when your friendly reviewer starts to doubt his own objectivity, so, braving the inaccessible cupboard-behind-the-sofa, I unearthed my beloved box of Messiaen playing his own works, the Par lui-même set on EMI (CZS 7 67400 2). My memory hadn’t played tricks, and indeed, his playing in this passage is not dissimilar to Archer’s. The difference is in the instrument and the acoustic, which creates an entirely different effect. Messiaen’s recordings are on an instrument in dire straits when it comes to repair, the famous Cavaillé-Coll organ at Sainte-Trinité in Paris in 1956, and are unfortunately on ropey old mono tapes, but it’s never a bad idea to hear how the composer played his own work. He comes in around 7 minutes longer than anyone else over the piece as a whole so the jury is out when it comes to tempi and all-round sustaining power, but if it’s real mysticism you’re after, Messiaen’s your man.
 
Moving on to Force et Agilité, Archer has some monumental power of her own in this movement, which has excellent shape and sound up until 03:00, the final voix humaine vibrato working on something in me I’d rather keep for Benny Hill. The upper register in the opening of Joie et Clarité is downright nasty. The final Mystère is refined, and the remote registration works well even if the 32’ kicks in a little roughly at times, but for me it was too little too late.
 
Summing up, I would be fascinated to hear Gail Archer performing this repertoire on a more sympathetic instrument. The more I listened, the more I became convinced that there was a talented player with plenty to say, but that the vagaries of the organ on this recording were too remote from Messiaen’s original intentions, or at least too flat-footed to bring across the mystic element so unfortunately trumpeted as the raison d’être of this disc. I’m sure the instrument would give us some cracking Lefébure-Wély, but for Messiaen, and for ‘A Mystic in the Making’ I would have to recommend looking elsewhere.
 
Dominy Clements      
 



 


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