Messiaen Complete Organ Works

Complementary approaches to Messiaen’s organ music – Latry refined‚ lucid yet engaged; Bate spontaneous and dramatic

Author: 
Arnold Whittall

Messiaen Complete Organ Works

  • Apparition de l'église éternelle
  • (La) Nativité du Seigneur
  • (Le) Banquet céleste
  • Diptyque
  • (Les) Corps glorieux
  • (9) Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité
  • Verset pour la fête de la dédicace
  • (L') Ascension
  • Messe de la Pentecôte
  • Livre d'orgue
  • Livre du Saint-Sacrement
  • Offrande au Saint Sacrement
  • Prélude
  • Monodie
  • Messe de la Pentecôte
  • Livre d'orgue
  • (9) Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité
  • Diptyque
  • Verset pour la fête de la dédicace
  • Livre du Saint-Sacrement
  • (La) Nativité du Seigneur
  • (Le) Banquet céleste
  • Apparition de l'église éternelle
  • (L') Ascension
  • (Les) Corps glorieux

Olivier Messiaen was of towering importance to the world of 20th­century music. Yet the seven­and a­half hours of his compositions for organ are a salutary reminder of how little time he had for that century’s secular and humanistic aspirations. The unwavering aura of the Catholic faith radiated by this music can‚ for less committed listeners‚ veer dangerously close to obsessive fanaticism‚ whereas Messaien’s concert works can give the impression of reaching beyond church and scripture‚ even though most of them never lose sight of those essential foundations.
It is therefore right and proper that recordings of the organ works should be made in church‚ not concert hall or studio. DG worked with Olivier Latry at Notre Dame‚ and enormous trouble has been taken to achieve the best possible balance between authentic resonance and spaciousness‚ and maximum clarity of texture‚ even at the quietest dynamic levels. The Notre Dame instrument‚ fully described in the booklet‚ retains enough of its mid­19th century‚ Cavaillé­Coll character to reinforce Messaien’s position within the French organ tradition. Yet only rarely is that tradition explicitly evoked‚ and Latry often seems genuinely in awe of Messiaen’s remarkable originality. For much of the time his playing has a contained quality‚ meticulously phrased and scrupulously graded in attention to details of registration and articulation‚ and this sense of reverence for the music can persist even when a bolder response might pay greater dividends. In the early La Nativité du Seigneur‚ I found Jennifer Bate more spontaneous and dramatic‚ an impression strengthened by the vivid tonal contrasts available from the Beauvais organ and the more forward sound to be heard throughout the remastered Regis discs. On the other hand‚ Latry’s playing seems more lucid and engaged than Bate’s in the extended (occasionally featureless) meditative passages of Les corps glorieux: and it is Latry who has the freer approach to tempo in the toccata­like writing of that cycle’s ‘Combat de la mort et de la vie’.
Jennifer Bate made the first recording of Messiaen’s last and longest cycle‚ Livre du Saint Sacrement‚ switching from Beauvais to the composer’s own Parisian church‚ Sainte­Trinité. Though hailed as ‘a monumental achievement’ when new‚ later judgements – especially in comparison with Gillian Weir’s version for Collins Classics (12/94 – nla) – have been more critical. But the Bate set stands up well‚ especially in the Livre du Saint Sacrement‚ where she relishes the extraordinary diversity of material and mood even more intensely than the cooler though never­less­than commanding Latry. The other large­scale later cycle‚ Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité‚ reinforces this basic distinction between the two interpreters‚ and although Latry has the more refined instrument and the more sophisticated recording‚ his slow tempos (Messiaen never gives metronome marks) can seem too slow‚ as in the eighth Méditation‚ ‘Dieu est simple – les Trois sont Un’.
Messaien was at his most experimental in Livre d’orgue and Messe de la Pentecôte‚ and the kind of floating contrapuntal textures that prove effective in works for piano and/or instrumental ensemble are less well suited to the organ. Latry does a particularly brilliant job with the extraordinarily naturalistic scene­painting of the Mass’s last movement‚ ‘Sortie (le vent de l’Esprit)’‚ and his measured delineation of the Livre’s ‘sixty­four durations’ – a rare case of a Messiaen movement without a spiritual epigraph – is also a highpoint. Nevertheless‚ Bate’s set makes an excellent bargain­price recommendation‚ and there is much to be learned from comparing how these very different artists‚ playing in different contexts‚ respond to these demanding scores. Latry adds three quite short pieces not previously recorded‚ but it is the major cycles which embody Messiaen’s unique‚ and uniquely committed‚ legacy: music expressing age­old faith in a new‚ utterly personal style.

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