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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
The Organ Works
Contents list at end of review
Jennifer Bate (organ)
rec. 1979-1987, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Beauvais; Église de la Sainte-Trinité, Paris
Originally issued by Unicorn-Kanchana; reissued by Regis
TREASURE ISLAND UKCD6001 [6 CDs: 453:17]

One of my most treasured memories is hearing Jennifer Bate play Messiaen’s Livre du Saint Sacrement in a suitably darkened Festival Hall many years ago. It was a magical occasion, made all the more so by the presence of the composer himself. Although very frail he was coaxed on stage afterwards to acknowledge the sustained applause. It was fitting that Bate gave the UK première of the piece, as Messiaen regarded her as one the foremost exponents of his music. Her set of the organ works was first released on LP by the now-defunct Unicorn-Kanchana; it was subsequently reissued by Regis in 2001. This new compilation is by Treasure Island Music, who style themselves as ‘custodians of invaluable master recordings’.

Bate’s box is not quite complete. Unlike Olivier Latry (Deutsche Grammophon), Hans-Ola Ericsson (BIS) and Gillian Weir (Collins, Priory) she doesn’t include the posthumous Prélude (?1928), Offrande au Saint Sacrement (1930/35) and Monodie (?1963). Weir’s traversal, recorded on the splendid Frobenius organ of Aarhus Cathedral, is my benchmark for these works. It’s worth noting that Priory have chosen to reissue her recordings in five separate volumes and not as s single collection. As for Bate’s Regis set it’s now hard to find, although I did see a copy on Amazon for an eye-watering £123.00.

CD1 contains La nativité du Seigneur, Le banquet céleste and Apparition de l’église éternelle. These are early pieces, composed between 1928 and 1935, the grandest of which focuses on the nativity of Christ. In my recent review of Tom Winpenny’s recent recording of the latter (Naxos) I suggested it is one of the greatest organ works ever written. I haven’t heard Bate’s Messiaen in ages, so I was curious as to how I'd react to it after all this time. With the exception of Livre du Saint Sacrement, recorded on the Cavaillé-Coll at Église de la Sainte-Trinité, Paris – where Messiaen was titulaire for 60 years – she plays the 1979 Danion-Gonzalez of Beauvais Cathedral in northern France.

Bate’s La nativité is lucidly done, the filigreed writing especially well served. As for the organ’s celestial registers they’re just ravishing. In general, her playing is scrupulous, perhaps even a tad cautious, but she does have a good feel for Messiaen’s slow, ever-shifting shapes and sonorities. I longed for stronger contrasts – something more precipitous, perhaps – but as the rest of this cycle confirms that's not Bate's way. Weir and Ericsson are more dramatic - Latry is a little too cerebral for my taste - but for something very special look no further than Simon Preston’s epic Decca recording. For me that has never been equalled, let alone surpassed. And for a fresh, invigorating take on the piece, well played and recorded, seek out Jean-Pierre Lecaudey (Pavane).

The other performances on this disc, Le banquet céleste and Apparition de l’église éternelle, are perfectly decent; again, Ericsson and Weir are more arresting and insightful, but for a truly splendid vision of the eternal city - sculpted in glittering sound - Thomas Trotter is hard to beat (Decca). I realise that his and Preston’s recordings aren’t part of larger sets – more’s the pity – but anyone interested in this music would do well to investigate these two releases. Besides, good couplings make them even more attractive; for instance, Preston’s La nativité is partnered by Antal Doráti’s superb Washington account of La transfiguration.

So, not a bad start to Bate’s cycle, although the recording isn’t as formidable as I remembered it. Indeed, in the LP days her Dieu parmi nous was something of a demonstration track. I did a quick A/B comparison between the Regis and Treasure Island discs. They’re not very different, but the latter does sound a bit thinner and brighter at times. Alas, it seems that time and advancing technology haven’t been kind to this recording, which is nowhere near as good as either Weir’s or Ericsson’s. I know Latry’s Messiaen is highly regarded in terms of both performance and sonics, but I've yet to be persuaded of its virtues.

Matters improve with CD2, which is devoted to L’Ascension, the first of Messiaen’s organ ‘cycles’, and Les corps glorieux. The first is actually derived from an orchestral piece penned between 1932 and 1933. In four titled movements it brims with imagination and incident. One can sense the composer setting out his stall as it were; there's music of quiet radiance and implacable resolve – Majesté du Christ – and then there's the unbridled passion/ecstasy of Transports de joie. Bate seems less circumspect too. Yes, she’s steady, but there’s also a glow to her performance. Indeed, her account of the closing Prière has a lustre, a shift and shimmer, that’s just glorious. If anything Weir, magnificently recorded, is even lovelier.

Now this is more like the Jennifer Bate that I came to admire all those years ago. Her reading of the seven-movement Les corps glorieux is equally reassuring; the fine detail of Subtilité des corps glorieux is remarkable, as is her rhythmic control in Les eaux de la grâce. It’s at times like these that one understands why Messiaen preferred her playing above all others. You may find more excitement elsewhere – more sinew, perhaps – but for sheer splendour Bate is hard to beat. Happily, this disc sounds better than the first one; in fact it’s vastly superior, with rich sonorities and an airiness that suits the music so well. Even the dark, ruminative bass of Le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité is superbly rendered.

CD3 is devoted to the first of Messiaen’s post-war organ pieces, Messe de la Pentecôte (1950) and Livre d’orgue (1951). I started off by listening to Volume 3 of Ericsson’s cycle, which duplicates this programme exactly. The first thing one notices about the Mass is how angular Messiaen’s writing has become, how dense some of his textures. Ericsson really emphasises these qualities, and the gnarlier aspects of Luleå Cathedral’s Grönlund are well caught. The swirling bass of Offertoire is particularly powerful, the mahoganied sound refined yet with that distinctive rasp when required. It’s a terrific performance, whose hypnotic pull – ancient and modern all at once – can’t fail to captivate.

Bate’s account of the Mass, recorded almost a decade earlier, isn’t quite so uncompromising in its shape and thrust. In general, her playing is characterised by a soft edge, which tends to blunt the music’s sharper contrasts and reduce the impact of its epiphanies. That’s certainly true here; also, the restless, rolling bass in Offertoire is somewhat cloudy. No, the cool, clear-eyed Ericsson is much to be preferred here. Weir is different again; for a start that Frobenius is a mighty beast, with a wide range of colours and a thrilling presence. Indeed, Weir's Mass has a forbidding grandeur that few can match.

One of the pleasures of reissues such as this one is that they allow one to revisit and re-evaluate older recordings in the light of what’s been heard since. If anything, listening to these performances en bloc confirms just how varied this music is, and how it yields so readily to different interpretations. What also strikes me is that of the three organists considered here Weir is the most imaginative and exciting. As with Preston in La nativité she’s not afraid to scale these heady heights, rejoicing in the precipitous climb; once there she looks down without a trace of fear or faintness. Bate, for all her virtues, isn’t quite so adventurous; for that matter, neither is Ericsson, but then he does illuminate these pieces in other ways.

Having said all that Bate certainly impresses with her bold response to Livre d’orgue. The sound of this Danion-Gonzalez may be an acquired taste - some Messiaen fans feel it's just plain wrong for this music - but it can be as engaging and characterful as any; the foghorn blasts in Reprises par interversion are particularly individual. For what it’s worth Ericsson is as forensic as ever, especially in the lovely bird calls of Chants d’oiseaux. The songs of these avian interlopers, already heard in La nativité (1935) and the piano ‘cycle’ Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (1944), became even more integral to the composer’s later works.

As an aside, it surprises me that even after all these years this unique repertoire is still derided in some quarters. I can understand that in this overwhelmingly secular and corrosively cynical age Messiaen’s staunch Catholicism isn’t fashionable; trouble is, it’s ingrained in his oeuvre in much the same way that it is in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. In short, you simply cannot have one without the other. Then there are the charges of prolixity; Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité, on CD4, runs for nearly 80 minutes, while Livre du Saint Sacrement stretches to around 130. Daunting, even for die-hards, but as ‘my’ Bate concert demonstrated these seemingly impossible spans are not without reward.

Messiaen’s nine meditations on the theological conundrum that lies at the heart of his faith finds the composer – and this organist – in very confident form. There’s a new clarity to the writing – less of the soft equivocations and more of the hard questions – that’s mirrored in Bate’s unusually robust playing. And goodness, the sudden clangour that erupts in the first meditation is superbly caught. More important, there’s a sense of daring here that I don’t often hear in Bate’s Messiaen. What glorious detail – that birdsong again – and what authority resides in those majestic moments. Musically and technically this is the most satisfying disc in the box thus far; in a fire it's the one I’d save.

CD5 takes us back in time, to the delightfully deft little Diptyque (1930) and the academic test piece Verset pour la fête de la dédicace (1960); thereafter Bate launches into the first half of Livre du Saint Sacrement, which concludes on CD6. The two short works show this organist at her very best, with supple rhythms and a palette of the most luminous colours. I can imagine the composer being only too pleased to add his imprimatur to such lovely performances. However, the switch to Paris for Livre du Saint Sacrement, his pièce de resistance, is not without its problems.

Sainte-Trinité's Cavaillé-Coll certainly adds heft to the music-making, but the downside is that there's a significant rise in the noise floor; alas, that very significant rumble disfigures the work’s quieter and more delicate movements, such as La source de vie. A quick comparison with the Regis discs confirms the change; the usual noise is present in the latter - it’s an occupational hazard with organ recordings – but at least it doesn't obscure so much detail. As for Bate's performance it’s as solid as I remembered it, although it will never efface memories of that live concert.

That said, Weir’s Livre du Saint Sacrement is exceptional; she really has the measure of this epic score, its structure and its stark contrasts. In an astonishing display of strength and virtuosity she seems to stud the very vaults of heaven with great bosses of sound. Bate is at her best in the music’s side chapels as it were, but if you want to experience the entire edifice in all its grit and glory Weir’s performance is the one to have. As if that weren’t accolade enough, the Collins recording - made in association with BBC Radio 3 - is as fearless as her playing.

I’m not a great fan of boxed sets – I own very few of them – as they’re rarely recommendable in toto. Bate’s box is a case in point: apart from her Méditations, L’Ascension, Les corps glorieux and Diptyque there’s nothing in this box that I’d regard as indispensable. Trouble is, Treasure Island only offer the complete set, so unless you’re prepared to hunt down individual Regis discs or download selected mp3 files you won’t be able to cherry-pick the best of Bate. At around £27 her box looks like fair value, but on a £ per disc basis Latry’s and Ericsson’s seven-disc sets don’t cost a whole lot more. It’s easier to be selective about Weir’s recordings, as the five volumes are sold separately. However, if you want 'em all – and I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t – you’re looking at around £52; then again, those discs are a bargain at any price.

One final point; the Treasure Island discs are presented in software-style paper sleeves that need to be peeled open. The CDs and booklet are so tightly packed in their thin cardboard container that I had to turn the box upside down and shake out the contents. Even then the booklet had bonded to an inner seam and emerged slightly damaged.

There are some truly wondrous things in Bate’s box, but Weir and Ericsson are more compelling throughout; they’re better recorded, too.

Dan Morgan
Contents list

CD 1 [71:50]
La nativité du Seigneur (1935) [54:55]
Le banquet céleste (1928) [6:55]
Apparition de l’église éternelle (1932) [10:00]
Recorded 1979

CD 2 [74:39]
L’Ascension (1934) [26:40]
Les corps glorieux (1939) [47:59]
Recorded 1979/80

CD 3 [75:31]
Messe de la Pentecôte (1950) [30:03]
Livre d’orgue (1951) [45:28]
Recorded 1980/81

CD 4 [78:19]
Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité (1969) [78:19]
Recorded 1980/81

CD 5 [78:18]
Diptyque (1930) [12:25]
Verset pour la fête de la dédicace (1960) [11:01]
Livre du Saint Sacrement (1984) (beginning) [54:52]
Recorded 1980/1987

CD 6 [74:40]
Livre du Saint Sacrement (end)
Recorded 1987


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