Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Le Banquet céleste (1928) [7:04]
La Nativité du Seigneur (1935) [57:53]
L’Ascension (1934) [27:29]
Le Corps glorieux (1939) [45:45]
Simon Preston (organ)
rec August 1962, Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge (L’Ascension); May 1965, Westminster Abbey, London (La Nativité); July 1969, St Albans Cathedral, UK (Le Banquet céleste; Le Corps glorieux)
ELOQUENCE 482 4917 [2 CDs: 138:30]
Simon Preston recorded these four early organ masterpieces by Messiaen over a seven-year period for Argo (1962-69) across three separate albums. They are collected together here on a fascinating double CD, one item among a bumper release of Preston’s complete organ back catalogue for Argo, issued partly (I imagine) to celebrate his 80th birthday in August 2018. Only the account of La Nativité du Seigneur has been previously issued in this format (on Decca in the 1990s, as a coupling for Antal Doráti’s kaleidoscopic, searing Washington recording of the monumental choral epic Le transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ). The three instruments used here impact greatly on how one perceives the success (or otherwise) of these performances and recordings. Of course one has to bear in mind that half a century or more has elapsed since they originally saw the light of day; while cycles of the French master’s organ works are hardly ten-a-penny there are a number of stunningly played and spectacularly recorded accounts. Among those, Jennifer Bate (Treasure Island), Olivier Latry (DG) (see Peter Quantrill's magnificently detailed and erudite MWI review of both) and Hans-Ola Ericsson (BIS) stand out for me that inevitably provide formidable competition for the present issue. Having said that, revisiting these pioneering versions will be both nostalgic and rewarding for many readers of a certain vintage, who will have a lot of affection for the enterprise of the old Argo label.
I’d like to start with what is the ‘known’ quantity to my ears, Preston’s La Nativité du Seigneur. I got into Messiaen while at school in Manchester. In the late 1970s I attended quite a few concerts in Manchester’s old Free Trade Hall (God bless it). By far the most memorable of these was a performance of Turangalîla-Symphonie by Yvonne Loriod, Tristan Murail and the (then) BBC Northern SO under the composer Gilbert Amy on February 21 1978. I remember the precise date because for years I possessed an autographed programme- my friends and I hung around after the concert in a grim yellow side room under the stage, and queued to shake hands with the composer (who to his eternal credit had braved Manchester in February!!) and (his wife) Mme Loriod. They signed my programme with a message in French and a neatly inscribed ‘21 Février 1978’. (I lost this treasure in a move a decade ago). Either way the whole experience overwhelmed me. Next day I elected to skip my first class at school to ensure I was at Gibb’s Bookshop on Mosley Street at 9.30am sharp. I couldn’t get the symphony, but I bought the second hand LPs of Preston’s Nativité and Yvonne Loriod’s Supraphon Reveil des Oiseaux and Oiseaux Éxotiques for £1.25 a piece!!
It’s very hard to break the attachment to the recording by which you get to know a loved work. I played this Nativité about 6 or 7 times before it began to add up for me; thereafter it was a mainstay on my record player. (My father, a pretty devout Catholic, utterly loathed it). It became accepted as the reference recording of the work, but a bit of archival digging reveals that even on its initial release, eminent reviewers had misgivings about the Westminster Abbey instrument’s appropriateness for this music, and not having played the record for years, despite the obvious refinement remastering has applied to the sound, the instrument now sounds clunky, cumbersome and, at a couple of moments, just plain weird to my ears. I’ve clearly been conditioned (and spoilt) by Latry’s compelling account on the Notre-Dame organ. The stunning DG recording and Latry’s clear, unfussy performance truly let the work speak for itself. There is no doubt that Preston’s playing is stylish throughout, but its smoothness, evident despite the instrument, seems now to detract from the work’s spiritual core. Some intensity is lost within the cycle as a whole: not an accusation one could level at Latry, nor at Bate nor even Ericsson.
In my view the recordings of the other three works stand the test of time more successfully without necessarily making them first choices (although the idea that this music is best ‘played’ or for that matter ‘recorded’ a certain way might seem nonsense!). In fact L’Ascension was the major work on Preston’s first ever record (It was coupled with a couple of pieces by César Franck which turn up on another of these Eloquence reissues). The King’s College instrument seems better-suited for this slightly earlier and certainly more direct cycle. Preston coaxes gorgeous effects in the languorous second movement Alléluias sereins d’une âme qui desire le ciel and tosses away the virtuoso third panel Transports du joie d’une âme devant la Gloire du Christ qui est la sienne (with its impossible figurations) with jaw-dropping ease. Perhaps the outer movements seem a little rushed – I feel the last movement especially should truly be allowed to linger ecstatically. Despite these caveats I think Preston’s performance bears up pretty well, although unsurprisingly, after 55 years, the recording is showing its age a little,
Preston recorded the other two works in 1969 on the organ of St Albans’ Cathedral, where the great Peter Hurford was then in residence. The contrast between the sound of this instrument and its Westminster and Cambridge counterparts in this repertoire is marked, notwithstanding the performer or the recording. The performances of both Le Banquet Céleste and Les Corps glorieux are certainly more in keeping with both Latry and Bate. The stops of the St Albans organ (and Preston’s registration) manage to sound particularly French here. While the instruments used by both Bate (the newish organ at Beauvais Cathedral) and Latry (Notre-Dame) certainly come into their own in the more massive and variegated cycles such as Livre du Saint Sacrament and the Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité, the more restrained modal stylings of Le Banquet Céleste and much of Les Corps glorieux suit the St Albans organ well. Preston’s performances of both are svelte and imaginative. The weird staccato pedal sounds in Le Banquet sound truly other-worldly, while it’s only in the massive central panel of Les Corps, Combat de la mort et de la vie where DG’s use of multiple microphones really trump Preston (and Bate for that matter), triumphantly harnessing the exquisite colours of the Notre-Dame organ, its huge sound and Latry’s magisterial performance. Having said that, Preston’s reading still convinces on virtually every level – it must have seemed mightily impressive on its release in 1970.
It goes without saying that all of these performances have their merits; Preston’s superb playing is never in doubt. But over the last half century the interpretation and recording of this extraordinary repertoire has evolved apace. It would be completely unfair to suggest that these pioneering accounts have been completely left behind, but, despite my real affection for them, in the cold light of day the Latry set continues to move, enthral and surprise me in ways that elude all its competitors. Regardless of that, Preston’s Messiaen recordings are important historical documents in themselves and it is good to have them back.