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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Verset pour la Fête de la Dédicace (1960) [9:06]
Livre d'orgue (1951) [43:26]
No. 1 Reprises par interversion (Repetitions in Inversion) [5:58]
No. 2 Pièce en trio (Trio) [2:36]
No. 3 Les mains de l'abîme [6:29]
No. 4 Chants d'oiseaux [8:12]
No. 5 Pièce en trio (Trio) [7:51]
No. 6 Les yeux dans les roues [1:49]
No. 7 Soixante - quatre durées [10:18]
Monodie (?1963) [2:58]
Tristan et Yseult: Thème d'amour (1945)* [1:40]
Tom Winpenny (organ)
rec. 2017, Église Saint-Martin, Dudelange, Luxembourg
Reviewed as a 16-bit download
Pdf booklet included
*World premiere recording
NAXOS 8.573845 [56:57]

This is the third instalment of an ongoing Messiaen cycle from Tom Winpenny, Assistant Master of Music at St Albans Cathedral. The first, devoted to the composer’s early masterpiece, La Nativité du Seigneur, is well worth hearing, even if it’s ‘more head than heart’. That said, the cathedral’s splendid Harrison & Harrison is superbly caught. The second, consisting of L'Ascension, Diptyque, Offrande au Saint-Sacrement, Prélude, Le Banquet Céleste and Apparition de l'Église Éternelle, is played on the 1992 Rieger at St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh. I was less taken with this one, describing Winpenny’s Messiaen as ‘a work in progress’. Again, the sonics are excellent, and that augurs well for the project as a whole.

This new recital is essayed on the Stalhuth-Jann at Église Saint-Martin, Dudelange, Luxembourg, an instrument I first encountered in Redemption, a mix of 19th- and 20th-century pieces played by the Finnish virtuoso, Kalevi Kiviniemi (Fuga). That was one of a top-notch series of SACDs engineered by the redoubtable Mika Koivusalo, who, alas, seems not to be doing Super Audio any more. Happily, the flow of new Messiaen releases shows no sign of abating. Among them is a a revelatory performance of La Nativité, played on the rejuvenated Harrison & Harrison of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, by the supremely talented Richard Gowers (Kings College). A musical and sonic marvel, it was one of my Recordings of the Year for 2018.

In his detailed liner-notes, Winpenny describes the conservatoire test piece, Verset pour la Fête de la Dédicace, as ‘an essay in bird song’. And how enchanting those complex avian scales sound in this spacious, highly atmospheric performance and recording. This is confident, well-considered playing that displays a keen ear for Messiaen’s distinctive progressions and his unique soundscapes. And so it is with Livre d’orgue, whose formal rigour - it’s a study in duration, timbre and Hindu rhythms - that plays to Winpenny’s cooler, more analytical method. Remarkably for a piece that lasts three-quarters of an hour there are no flat spots, each ‘number’ perfectly formed and strongly characterised. This is a glorious instrument - how Stygian those dark, rolling pedals in Les Mains de l’abîme, and how feather-light Winpenny’s delivery in Chants d'oiseaux; indeed, Christoph Frommen’s exemplary recording does both the music and organ full justice. Then again, that’s become a hallmark of this series.

As always, there’s no shortage of competition in these works, notably from Messiaen protégé Jennifer Bate (Unicorn-Kanchana, Regis and Treasure Island), Dame Gillian Weir (Collins, Priory), Olivier Latry (Deutsche Grammophon) and Hans-Ola Ericsson (BIS). For comparison’s sake I listened to Ericsson’s Verset, played on the 1987 Grönlund organ of Luleå Cathedral (BIS-442). He finds a modicum of mystery, of devotion, that, for all his skill, Winpenny doesn’t quite manage. The Swede’s way with that sustained finale is particularly moving. Honours are more evenly divided in Livre d’orgue (BIS-441), which just underlines the ‘swings and roundabouts’ nature of such collections. (For consistency of execution and visionary appeal, Weir’s epic traversal, essayed on the mighty Frobenius of Aarhus Cathedral, remains sans pareil.)

The austere little Monodie, thought to date from 1963, was published posthumously. As a fairly recent discovery, it appears in the Latry and Ericsson boxes, but not the Bate and Weir ones. Ericsson didn’t include it in any of his six separate albums, but appended it to the complete set. Winpenny does it well enough, but once again it’s the Swede, recorded in Katharinenkirche, Oppenheim, who draws us deeper into Messiaen’s mystico-spiritual universe.

As for Tristan et Yseult: Thème d'amour, Winpenny explains that it formed the basis of improvised incidental music intended for a play by Lucien Fabre. Messiaen’s recording of the premiere is lost, but the theme, printed in the theatre programme, has survived. One might be tempted to think of Wagner, but this is actually based on a Peruvian folk melody, ‘Delirio’. Then again, as Wagner’s epic so amply demonstrates, it’s an all-consuming myth dominated by the delirium of love. One can only wonder what the composer made of this unusual enterprise, but the fragment is much too short to qualify as anything more than a historical curiosity.

Thorough and thoughtful, Winpenny’s Messiaen rarely challenges the best in the catalogue; spacious, involving sound, though.

Dan Morgan

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