MESSIAEN Les Corps Glorieux
Les Corps Glorieux and La Nativité du Seigneur are Olivier Messiaen’s two major pre-war organ cycles, works that helped clarify the rhythmic and harmonic specifics of his compositional language and his taste for dividing overarching structures into thematically interlinked chapters. Tom Winpenny’s La Nativité du Seigneur is cool to the point of reticence and only a qualified success. The opening movement, ‘La Vierge et l’Enfant’, is crisp but clinical and alarm bells start ringing. ‘Le Verbe’ really ought to leave you punch drunk but Winpenny is reluctant to make Messiaen’s sharply delineated contrasts count for much. And with the likes of Jennifer Bate and Olivier Latry still readily available, this can be nobody’s idea of good enough.
In contrast, Kevin Bowyer’s Les Corps Glorieux – played on the organ of Glasgow University Memorial Chapel – is quite the ear-opener. Naxos locates the listener in the middle distance from the organ but Priory’s sound environment is more immediate and earthy. Bowyer keeps his nerve during the first movement, ‘Subtilité des Corps Glorieux’, delivering Messiaen’s monochrome plainsong-derived line with poker-face fingers that resist the temptation to sex anything up. The great dramatic schism in the cycle occurs with the fourth section, ‘Combat de la Mort et de la Vie’, and Bowyer pushes the levels beyond the red. Harmonic fields collide with volcanic impact and the music temporarily loses control of its senses; the contrasted second section, a flute-toned retort, is all sweetness and light.
Bowyer also offers Offrande au Saint-Sacrement and Prélude, juvenilia with attitude discovered after Messiaen’s death, and a pair of rarities, Verset pour la fête de la dédicace (written as an exam text piece) and Monodie (for his assistant). Nothing momentous, but very satisfying to my inner Messiaen-geek.