Messiaen Livre du Saint Sacrement

Responding to the many challenges of Messiaen’s farewell to the organ

Author: 
Malcolm Riley

Messiaen Livre du Saint Sacrement

  • Livre du Saint-Sacrement

Volume 3 of Michael Bonaventure’s complete Messiaen returns to St Giles’s Cathedral
in Edinburgh and its stunning Rieger organ, which dates from 1992.

Messiaen’s farewell to the organ, the Livre du Saint Sacrement, was composed in 1984‑85 to a commission from the American Guild of Organists. Many of its ideas were inspired by a visit to Israel in the spring of 1984. The first performance was given by Almut Rössler in Detroit in 1986. Messiaen spoke of this Book of the Blessed Sacrament as a summation of the experience gained from improvising each Sunday at the Eglise de la Saint-Trinité in Paris, where he was organist for over 60 years. There is no shortage of familiar Messiaenic thumbprints: dislocated ideas, meandering dribbles of plainsong, chirpy birdsong, slow, development-less sudden and spectacular bolts of anger; and those endlessly messy chords that desperately need to resolve.

Playing from memory, Bonaventure takes just under two hours, slightly longer than Olivier Latry at Notre-Dame (DG, 5/02). Movements 1-4 serve as a prelude or ante-Communion. Movements 5-11 follow events in the life of Jesus, and 12-18 contemplate the mysteries of the Sacrament.

This uneven, over-long piece poses considerable challenges to both player and listener, there being few moments of comfortable repose. The more athletic passages (for example in the Alleluia final – originally entitled “La Visitation”) bounce along with a redeeming joy.

Despite the generous acoustic the Rieger organ is recorded cleanly. It is especially effective in the echo effects in the short fourth movement, “Acte de Foi”.

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