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Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
Complete Organ Works - Vol. IV
CD1
La Nativité du Seigneur (1935) [65:22]
Offrande au Saint Sacrement (c.1930) [4:37]
Prélude (c.1930) [8:39]
CD2
L’Ascension (1934) [28:07]
Diptyque (1930) [11:38]
Messe de la Pentecôte (1950, from earlier improvisation) [28:46]
Verset pour la Fête de la Dédicace (1960) [11:03]
Timothy Byram-Wigfield (organ)
rec. St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, UK, 11, 15-17 July 2008. DDD.
Booklet includes organ specification.
DELPHIAN DCD34078 [79:02 + 79:36]
Experience Classicsonline

These two very well filled CDs form the final volume in Delphian’s survey of Messiaen’s complete organ music. They contain several of his earliest published works, in which, in the composer’s own words, the ‘abundance of technical means allows the heart to overflow freely’. Two of the three great organ cycles of the 1930s are included: la Nativité du Seigneur and L’Ascension.
 
Even in the very competitive market of Messiaen organ recordings, Delphian’s series of one single CD and three 2-CD sets, shared between Timothy Byram-Wigfield on the Harrison and Harrison instrument in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, and Michael Bonaventure at St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, has been well received. Byram-Wigfield kicked things off in 2006 with a single CD (DCD34024) which was described as strongly delineated, if a little too cautious, and auguring well for the series as a whole. Nevertheless, impressed as Dan Morgan was with Volume 3 (DCD34076), for him Gillian Weir (Priory) and Jennifer Bate (Regis) still reign supreme (see review; see also Julie Williams’ review of Volume 2 (DCD34016)).
 
The major work on the first of these CDs is la Nativité. I refer you to my review of Jennifer Bate’s award-winning recording of this work on Regis RRC1086 for a detailed description of the music and of her composer-endorsed performance of it. For around £5 that recording offers a wonderful account of the music and it remains my first choice, singly or in a 6-CD box set (RRC6001), with Gillian Weir on Priory PRCD921 pretty close behind.
 
Byram-Wigfield is rather slower in general than Bate or Messiaen himself on Messiaen par lui-même on EMI. In the first section, La Vierge et L’Enfant, he takes 7:38 against Messiaen’s own 5:13 and Bate’s 5:26; in the third section, Desseins éternels, his 6:53 compares with the master’s own 5:21 and Bate’s 5:00, and the penultimate Les Mages at 8:10 compares with 6:29 on EMI and just 5:12 from Bate, which makes him either very reverential or just plain slow, depending on your point of view. I certainly find no lack of reverence in Messiaen’s or Bate’s accounts of la Vierge et l’Enfant and Gillian Weir also agrees generally with their tempi – she even outstrips them in Desseins éternels at 4:18.
 
Even in the final movement, Dieu parmi nous, which the Delphian booklet aptly describes as ‘blazingly affirmative’, Byram-Wigfield is slightly slower than Messiaen and much slower than Bate. For la Nativité, therefore, the new recording is somewhat uncompetitive; though Byram-Wigfield’s recordings of the two shorter pieces, Offrande and Prélude, are more to the point, I was a little disappointed with the first disc overall.
 
The second CD of the new set almost exactly duplicates Decca 436 400 2, on which Thomas Trotter performs L’Ascension, Diptyque and Messe de la Pentecôte in the same order as on the new recording. The only difference is that Trotter includes the revised version of Apparition de l’Église Éternelle, which I much prefer to Byram-Wigfield’s Verset pour la Fête de la Dédicace.
 
Here, too, there are some wide discrepancies of timing, though the boot is not always on the same foot. In the opening section of L’Ascension Trotter and Byram-Wigfield agree in adopting an unhurried tempo. In the second movement Byram-Wigfield’s somewhat faster but by no means hurried tempo is, I think, to the benefit of the music – this is after all a representation of the Alleluias of a soul seeking heaven. Jennifer Bate almost exactly splits the difference between the two (RRC1087). From what I gather from Dominy Clements’ review, all of these are far preferable to Gail Archer on Meyer Media MM07007.
 
In the third section it is Trotter who is just slightly faster and this time I marginally prefer his presentation of the soul’s transports of joy. Better still, Jennifer Bate is slightly faster still.
 
The greatest discrepancy occurs in the final prayer of Christ as he rises to His Father – Trotter takes 7:12, Byram-Wigfield 10:32, which makes it a very long prayer indeed. The slow tempo adds to the transcendental aura surrounding the music and, while I prefer something closer to Trotter’s tempo, the sense of mystery and mysticism engendered by the new recording is appropriate for a composer whose music, like that of Bruckner, is saturated with his deep religious beliefs and who, like Bruckner, refuses to be hurried. There is precedent, too, for a slower tempo for this final movement: Messiaen himself takes 9:18.
 
Diptyque, an early piece, written in 1930 and moving from the anguish of life to the peace and charity of Paradise, receives good performances from both Trotter and Byram-Wigfield. Their tempi are very similar; both noticeably faster than Messiaen’s own recording. Jennifer Bate is much closer to Messiaen’s own timing: Regis RRC 2052, an excellent 2-CD set, with Livre du Saint Sacrement. Gillian Weir, too, allows the music a little more time to breathe than either the Decca or Delphian recording: PRCD925/6, 2 CDs.
 
Messiaen himself is also slower than both Trotter and Byram-Wigfield in sections of the Messe de la Pentecôte. In the opening Entrée, representing the tongues of fire at Pentecost, the Decca and Delphian recordings are in broad agreement on a fairly brisk tempo (2:24 and 2:33), which I find appropriate to the music, where Messiaen himself is almost a third slower at 3:29. Even better, at 2:03, is Gillian Weir’s account on PRCD923.
 
Messiaen and Weir closely agree with Trotter’s tempo for the second section, Offertoire, whereas Byram-Wigfield is much slower and, I think, in danger of losing the listener’s attention.
 
All four are in broad agreement for the third section, Consécration, and for the fourth, Communion – the Decca and Delphian recordings in exact agreement here at 5:59 – but Messiaen is again noticeably slower than both for the final Sortie, representing the breath of the Holy Spirit, whilst Weir is marginally faster than any of the others. A wide latitude of tempi appear to be appropriate here, depending on whether one thinks of the Spirit as rushing out into the world or working inexorably. If there is an ‘ideal’ tempo, Bate probably has it at 3:59; as so often, she splits the difference between the extremes.
 
Incidentally, my review copy of CD2 contains not 11 tracks, as per the booklet, but 10, with Consécration and Communion run together on track 8, not separately tracked as advertised. I don’t know if this will have been rectified on the commercial copies.
 
The new recording is rounded off by a good performance of Verset pour ... la Dédicace; I think I’d have chosen one of the better-known items to end the programme, but it’s hardly a serious fault and it does have a certain chronological logic, in that it’s a much later piece than the rest of the programme.
 
For all my reservations about individual movements, I derived great pleasure from listening to this new Delphian recording. Despite the discrepancies in tempo, nearly everything makes perfect sense in the context of Byram-Wigfield’s overall performance, reminding us yet again that musicality is much more important than trying to hit an ‘ideal’ tempo. Yet, though I marginally prefer the new recording to the opposition in places, I’d still recommend purchasing either the Bate or Weir recordings, with Trotter as a very valuable supplement.
 
Jennifer Bate’s recordings were admired by the composer himself and both her set and that of Gillian Weir have stood the test of time. Weir’s recordings on Priory are a little more expensive than the Bate/Regis, especially bearing in mind the Regis 6-CD set, but they can be obtained in decent mp3 sound as downloads from theclassicalshop.net at £4.99 each. Thomas Trotter’s CD can be obtained in equally fine mp3 sound, at 320kbps, for £7.99 from passionato.com, but the Bate recordings, in their original Unicorn-Kanchana couplings, are uncompetitive at £7.99 each from theclassicalshop.net – more expensive than the Regis CDs.
 
The organ of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, is more than convincing in Messiaen’s music, but there’s still much to be said for having a French organ, preferably one better in tune than Messiaen’s on his own recording. Jennifer Bate’s 6-CD set for Regis (RRC6001) is unbelievably inexpensive at around £25 in the UK, and the organs of Beauvais Cathedral and Messiaen’s own Sainte-Trinité are, of course, authentic.
 
The Decca recording for Trotter is very good and the Regis and Priory recordings for Bate and Weir not far behind, but the new Delphian has a slight edge on all three. For all its authenticity, Messiaen’s own 4-CD EMI recording sounds least well of all.
 
The excellent Delphian booklet includes a 3,000-word essay by Messiaen’s acclaimed biographer Nigel Simeone and a complete specification of the Windsor organ – though no details are provided of the registration for each piece, which I should have liked.
 
My review copy originally came with just one CD instead of two. In supplying the missing disc, Delphian have assured me that the problem was limited to press releases, but you may wish to check before you buy.
 
Brian Wilson
 
 


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