First, as there are a few names bandied about on this CD let’s sort out who’s who. Jeanne Demessieux is the composer of all of the pieces here except one. She was, amongst other things, organist from 1962 until her untimely death, of that vast church in the middle of Paris ‘La Madeleine’. There César Franck had also played. Her recording of his complete organ works in 1962 won several awards.
She would have recorded Messiaen had her condition not worsened. She was much loved and this brings me to the second person. Pierre Labric, in 1969 and 1972, on the organ at Notre-Dame de Paris, recorded this ‘Hommage’ to his teacher and friend. He is represented by part of a ‘Hommage’ to Jeanne Demessieux. Labric was born in 1921, the same year as the composer. He came from Rouen and it’s the organ at the superb medieval church of St.Ouen on which he recorded the complete organ works of Saint-Saens. He was born in 1921 so in 2011 he will be 90 years young. There is an introductory essay by Yvette Carbou, an admirer and friend of Labric, and then there are analytical notes by her husband François Carbou, also a friend of Demessieux.
The Notre-Dame organ in 1969 was even more typically French than now. The booklet has photographs of Labric and Demessieux sitting at its five manual console. There is a ‘Grand Orgue’ consisting of fourteen stops, a ‘Positif’ manual of sixteen including a fascinating ‘Cymbale’, a third called ‘Recit Expressif’ used most effectively in the middle section of the Te Deum. A ‘Solo’ manual and finally a ‘Grand Choeur’, which all in all constitutes seventy-four stops. In addition there is a ‘pedale’ board of twenty-eight stops which includes a typically French ‘Chalumeau’ and ‘Clairon’. At the time of recording Pierre Cochereau the then organist was in the process of making a few modifications to these specifications, so the instrument you now here is not quite as heard on this CD.
The recording presents the works chronologically and opens with Demessieux’s Six Etudes. Studies, rarely found for the organ, are meant to be challenging if not exceedingly difficult. These were considered unplayable according to the booklet notes. Quite obviously the brilliant Labric does not agree or if he does he fails to show it. Its when one is listening to studies that one most needs the score - so my view of these works is entirely aural and I can only offer a general guide.
The first is a pedal study ‘Pointes’ being a perpetuum mobile in semiquavers for the pedal at a tempo marking of Allegro agitato. This piece marks out the sound and style of the entire CD. It is harmonically extremely ambiguous although each study ends on a major chord. For the second ‘Tierces’ I quote the notes in full: “An etude for double pedal at the third, written in imitation with a second conjunct theme over an ostinato”. The third ‘Sixtes’ is a Scherzando in compound time with the pedal leaping about in sixths with a theme above. The fourth ‘Accords alternés’ is another Allegro with a theme in the pedal, which moves to the great, and the choir when it is accompanied by semiquaver pedal passages. The fifth ‘Notes repétées’, a Vivo in 5/4, is specifically a pedal study, with manual chords in staccato above. The wild sixth study called ‘Octaves’ marked Allegro con fuoco is of great virtuosity with fast scales followed by another perpetuum mobile series of broken chords - then the whole thing is repeated. Breathtaking.
The Triptych falls into three almost equal movements: an opening Prelude with quite experimental and twisted harmony, a polytonal Adagio with its highly chromatic melody and a final Fugue with clearer tonality, which becomes increasingly frenetic. This is a true concert work and not one that could legitimately be used liturgically.
The Two Meditations (of a set of seven) are not the sort of reflective pieces you might have imagined. The booklet notes state that Messiaen is ‘brought to mind’ yet harmonically they strike me as more harmonically advanced than ‘La Nativité’ of about the same period. The first meditation ‘Les Eaux’ develops into a loud and highly complex climax mainly built around counterpoint. The second, which is number seven in the set (how I would love to hear them all), ‘Lumière’ is a toccata in style, very light and airy and using entirely four foot and eight four stops on the ‘Solo’ manual. Perhaps Messiaen’s ‘Les Anges’ might come to mind. Interestingly, when I was in Notre-Dame only a few weeks ago the organ happened to be playing. I noticed that the higher registers did not carry down the nave as clearly as one might have expected, so perhaps it does need extra help.
Despite what I have said above the Te Deum, completed in 1958, is even more ecstatic, wild and virtuoso than anything heard so far especially in its outer sections. It uses two plainchant melodies from the Te Deum in its tripartite form with an almighty sense of triumphalism towards the end with its rapid runs and coruscating chords. It is dissonant and exhilarating.
The CD ends with two brief works not discussed in the booklet notes, a Choral-Prelude by Demessieux which is more restrained in style and harmony than earlier works and the first movement of a Hommage to her by Pierre Labric. The latter is a sort of Widor Toccata except much more harsh and ill-disciplined. In fact the recording, which is not consistently helpful does not do this work justice at its more contrapuntal and forceful moments, which accounts, I must add, for a great deal of the piece although it ends thoughtfully. However on the whole the recording quality is not a real drawback despite the volume coming and going at times.
Despite my generally positive view of this disc, I have to say that it is probably one for the specialists whom I hope will excuse any error in technical language in this review which I know you organists much enjoy.