Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Livre du Saint-Sacrement (1984)
CD 1
Movements I-X [48:48]
CD 2
Movements XI-XVIII [52:37]
Paul Jacobs (organ)
rec. 27-30 January 2009, Church of St Mary the Virgin, New York City, USA
NAXOS 8.572436-37 [48:48 + 52:37]

This is one of those rare pieces, an organ work which has almost literally everything. It’s one of my favourites, and Jennifer Bate’s premiere recording, originally on Unicorn-Kanchana and now part of the complete set on Regis, is pretty much inscribed onto my aural DNA. There are numerous noble recordings of this great work around, but it is to Bate’s I always return, so that is my principal reference.

Paul Jacobs is clearly a highly skilled organist – not to be confused with pianist Paul Jacobs whose superb 1978 recording of Debussy’s Préludes on Warner/Nonesuch I only recently discovered. The later French master Olivier Messiaen is very well served by this Naxos recording, and if it’s only the Livre du Saint-Sacrement you are looking for then this bargain release can hold its own amongst the best.

Jacobs’ timing over the entirety of the piece is a good deal shorter than Bate’s, but the vast canvas on which this work is played out can easily cope with having 30 minutes or so shaved from its entirety and still sound unhurried. In this respect, Jacobs is closer to Olivier Latry on his DG set. Bate creates an atmosphere of almost absolute timelessness at crucial moments however: lingering over sustained movements, and giving us the kind of glimpses into eternity which Messiaen must have had in mind while coaching her on interpretation. Jacobs doesn’t sound ‘wrong’ however, and his lyrical flow in monadic passages such as Le Dieu caché are elegantly shaped and never superficial. The organ sound of the Church of St Mary the Virgin is convincingly colourful and pungent, if not quite as nasally atmospheric as Messiaen’s own instrument at Sainte-Trinité.

In the end, it is atmosphere which the difference between these recordings. Both have that sense of awe and grandeur, that affinity with the sheer hugeness of creation. Jacobs’ has a good deal less rumble to that of the Paris recording, but both churches have the right kind of magnificent acoustic needed for such music to inhabit and create its own worlds of sound. I thought I was going to have to qualify my bias in favour of Bate, but while there are certain effects which just seems to ‘fit’ better in the colours of the Sainte-Trinité organ I can’t honestly say the St Mary organ is in any way inferior. Take the movement Les réssuscités et la lumière de vie. The impact of the opening is more impressive with the New York instrument, and the bass depths deeper. The pungency of the Paris organ rings true, but I have to admit all of the terrifying effects sound every bit as effective on the Naxos recording. A central movement, La Réssurection du Christ has that marvellous growl from the Sainte-Trinité organ which also makes the opening Adoro te so special, but the harmonies are better defined in St Mary the Virgin, so that the impact of those trademark Messiaen resolutions are deeply effective. No, the differences in atmosphere which count are those between the two players, and even there one can be pushed to favour one above the other. Where Bate wins for me is where we are brought back to those abyss-like infinities. Even where the timings are similar with a movement such as La Transsubstantiation it is the contrast in voices in the abstract lines of the opening passage and its reiteration where I prefer the Sainte-Trinité organ. The New York sound is better fed and rounder by comparison, a bit too comfortable and easy – perfectly fine in isolation, but listen to Messiaen’s own instrument and you will experience more why he was led to explore such effects. Another movement to which one gravitates is the gorgeous Prière après la communion, which has an almost cheesy new-age quality which only Messiaen can make sound really contemplative and spiritual. It is Bate who achieves these effects best, adding a good minute over Jacobs’ timing, allowing true quiet to be generated and true weight to be given to those simple but breathtaking melodic gestures and chord progressions. Even given some slightly dodgy intonation at Sainte-Trinité, Bate and Jacobs are equally affirmative in the final Offrandre et Alléluia, the Naxos recording more spectacular in terms of bass oomph and clarity, the Paris sounds having their own urgency and distinctive ringing treble ‘ping’ which lifts the entire texture.

Having been pre-programmed by years living with Jennifer Bate’s premiere recording of this magnificent work I wasn’t expecting to be that impressed by this Naxos release, but I have to admit my preconceptions have been entirely swept away. Yes, I still hold my high regard for the thrill-factor and sheer sense of spiritual content in Bate’s recording, and I do ultimately favour the authentic Sainte-Trinité organ and ‘presence of the composer’ sound over the richer sonorities of St Mary the Virgin, but neither do I want this to take away from Paul Jacobs’ achievement in this new recording. If trouser-flapping bass is what you look for with organ recordings then the Naxos disc will satisfy more, though not with quite the immediacy and startlingly spectacular clarity of Olivier Latry at the organ of Notre-Dame in Paris on DG. Latry is marvellously impressive, but ultimately like a teenage bride for the middle-aged man – plenty of wow factor in the first flush, but what is there left to talk about when things have cooled off? If I have one criticism of this Naxos release, then it’s only the playing time. A coupling with a handful of Messiaen’s shorter organ works to go with it would have been nice as is the case with the Regis double CD, but for the money who’s complaining? This will do very well, and thanks and praise to all concerned.

Dominy Clements

Must-have Messiaen and a fine recording and performance.