Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Apparition de l'Eglise Eternelle (1932) [8:02]
La Nativité du Seigneur (1935) [57:08]
Jean-Pierre Lecaudey (organ)
rec. January 2002, Collégiale Saint-Martin de Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. DDD
PAVANE ADW 7528 [65:10]
Messiaen’s epic meditation, La Nativité du Seigneur, is a towering achievement in every sense; it’s a mystico-spiritual journey like no other, suffused with ecstasy and fire. All this from a man who sat at an organ console for the first time when he was just 19. Apparition de l'Eglise Eternelle is an earlier and much shorter work, yet it’s another of the composer’s sculptures in sound, a vision of God’s church, both mighty and profound. Surely even those who don’t buy into Messiaen’s deeply felt and highly personal universe must be overwhelmed by the sheer audacity and scale of his wide-ranging œuvre for organ?
If only that were so; Messaien’s music still attracts a surprising amount of animosity, despite the advocacy of front-rank organists such as Jennifer Bate, Gillian Weir, Thomas Trotter and Simon Preston. One of my most treasured musical memories is of Bate’s performance of Livre du Saint Sacrement, given at the Royal Festival Hall in the composer’s presence. Devotees all, we were much moved when, at the end, the composer appeared on the platform to acknowledge our applause.
Curiously, the most admired exponents of Messiaen’s organ works are British. Dame Gillian’s almost complete survey for Collins Classics (now available from Priory) is indispensable for its loftiness and insight; and despite the composer’s very public support for Bate’s performances, her Unicorn-Kanchana set (available from Regis) is technically and artistically more variable. Sadly, Preston and Trotter haven’t managed complete cycles, but their versions of individual works are amongst the finest in the catalogue. Lest anyone think I’m being partisan, there’s an excellent series from BIS as well, played by Hans-Ola Ericsson.
So it’s clear this newcomer faces stiff competition. The Provençale instrument, built by Pascal Quoirin between 1977 and 1983, looks magnificent in the booklet image, but I searched in vain for a picture and/or biography of organist Jean-Pierre Lecaudey, who is new to me. Nevertheless, the liner-notes are good, offering the texts on which the music is based and musical examples as well.
So, how does it all sound? Apparition de l'Eglise Eternelle is a majestic piece, at once a cathedral in sound and a celestial procession that passes by in a blaze of glory. Lecaudey builds a splendid edifice, scaling those tall columns and spires with disarming ease. The clean, unfussy recording has plenty of heft, but it’s not quite as thrilling as that provided for Weir (Aarhus Cathedral) or Trotter (L’Eglise-Collégiale Saint-Pierre de Douai). As a reading Lecaudey’s is on the quick side and it doesn’t match Weir for sheer frisson or, for might and majesty, Trotter (Decca 436 400-2).
Make no mistake this is very fine playing, but one senses Lecaudey’s rivals dig a little deeper here. And it’s that heightened awareness of light and shade, of contemplation and joy, that’s so important in La Nativité du Seigneur. Few have divined the secrets of that vaulted space more completely than Simon Preston, whose classic account – recorded at Westminster Abbey in 1965 – is one of the most luminous and profoundly moving organ recordings in the catalogue.
But for all that I was most impressed with Lecaudey’s clear-eyed – but compelling – response to the quiet rapture of ‘La Vierge et l’Enfant’ (The Virgin and Child). True, Weir and Preston find another dimension to this music, a sense of Presence perhaps, before which all others tremble. Preston is especially inspired in the cooling registers of ‘Les bergers’ (The shepherds), the Westminster organ in soaring, transcendent voice throughout. Goodness, it’s hard to believe this recording is 46 years old; sonically it doesn’t yield much to the Pavane release, although the latter has a lovely glow that I came to adore. Even though Lecaudey’s pedals are well caught, notably in the slow-moving ‘Dessins éternels’ (Eternal designs), the Decca team have the edge here too. As for the Aarhus organ, that has exceptional reach and power.
Comparing these recordings underlines just how much the character and size of the instrument influences one’s perception of this great score. Lecaudey’s slightly upfront organ sounds brighter and more forceful in the ecstatic outbursts of ‘Le Verbe’ (The Word), whereas Weir’s and Preston’s are more restrained and refined. That’s also the result of their different playing styles, Lecaudey opting for a sharper, more clearly articulated approach than either of his rivals. That said, he finds a profound sense of stillness here that’s deeply affecting, Messiaen’s dark, jewelled colours pulsing in the gloom. This is playing of the highest order, and a reminder that Weir, Preston et al don’t have it all their own way.
The start of ’Les Enfants de Dieu’ (The Children of God) may sound fractionally less vertiginous in Lecaudey’s hands, yet the quieter passages are blessed with some of the most ravishing sounds imaginable. ‘Les anges’ (The angels) is given a bright, shimmering presence – Lecaudey’s more articulate presentation really pays off here – the gruff and growl of ‘Jésus accepte la souffrance’ (Jesus accepts suffering) and that noble, efflorescing finale superbly shaped and projected. Indeed, this performance just seems to get better and better, testing old loyalties to the limit. That’s certainly true of the feather-light scoring in ‘Les Mages’ (The Magi); even though Weir and Preston are wonderfully poised Lecaudey is just as buoyant. Yet more astonishing is the variety and sophistication of the Quoirin organ’s colour palette, the smallest nuance uncovered in this most natural recording.
The climactic ‘Dieu parmi nous’ (God amongst us) is often played on its own as a concert piece, and hearing it again I’m reminded why; but for all its vaulting grandeur there’s a plethora of detail that can so easily be lost in the desire to excite. Weir and Preston certainly go for broke, helped by fabulous instruments and vast acoustics, but I found Lecaudey’s clear, nicely proportioned reading utterly compelling. Seasoned listeners might prefer weight and breadth, but the Frenchman adds insight too.
So often in reviews one digs out favourite recordings smug in the expectation that the newcomer will fall short. Well, that’s not the case here; for me, Trotter’s reading of Apparition de l'Eglise Eternelle is unassailable, but Lecaudey’s version of La Nativité du Seigneur is up there with the best. Yes, one could carp about this detail or that, but taken in toto this is a performance of real stature; I’m thrilled to have it on my shelves.
One could carp about this detail or that but in toto this is a performance of real stature; I’m thrilled to have it on my shelves.