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,
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 Lanativité 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
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
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
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 LivreduSaint 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,