prominent Australian composer commented once that we organists had the
privilege of counting amongst our ranks two of history’s greatest composers: JS Bach and
Olivier Messiaen. Both have certainly attracted (and more than occasionally
addicted) generations of organists, enticing some towards the Everest of
playing the complete works.
of the great organists from the late 20th century to the present day
are easily associated with Messiaen’s
music. A very brief and very incomplete survey of the past 60 years should make
for interesting reading and help to give context for this review.
Messiaen’s own recordings at La
Trinité in 1956, it was English organists such as Arthur Wills, Simon Preston
(who recorded L'Ascension at King’s College
1962) and Gillian Weir (a selection of works recorded at Royal Festival Hall in
1966 – not to mention the
complete works in 1994) who blazed the trail. Jennifer Bate and the late John
Scott are other English names that must be mentioned, while Almut Rößler,
Olivier Latry and Hans-Ola Ericsson are amongst prominent European champions.
Many Americans have followed suit: notably Jon Gillock and Paul Jacobs, who won
a Grammy for his 2011 recording of Livre Du Saint Sacrement. In
Australia we were fortunate that distance did not hinder our exposure: Annette
Goerke (who first played Messiaen in Perth in 1963), Robert Boughen, Norman Johnston
and David Rumsey (who recorded an all-Messiaen CD at Sydney Town Hall in 1994).
release of a new recording of Messiaen’s complete organ works not only adds the name of Colin
Andrews to this distinguished company but it also concretes another milestone
along the path to mainstream recognition of France’s modern-day master.
release by Loft Recordings fills eight compact discs and is also available for
download (as is becoming the new normal) via several online retailers such as
iTunes and Gothic-catalog. It is also being distributed internationally via the
hearing a note, the listener is not only greeted but primed for the colours and
wonder of the music with an array of beautiful artwork for each CD booklet.
Another reason to consider buying the physical collection is the inclusion of
excellent programme notes, written mostly by the artist.
known to Australian audiences through his annual visits down under, Colin
Andrews’ pedigree fits very
neatly into the second paragraph of this review: English born, American
residing, Gillian Weir trained. Andrews says of his studies with her:
‘In addition to the obvious technical perfection and
riveting passion of her playing, Dame Gillian was able to go beyond that and
convey the mysticism, poetry and timelessness of the music.’
of the music:
‘I fell in
love with Messiaen's music as a boy of 14; the music spoke to me on a very deep
level. I would borrow the scores of the
early works from the library in my hometown & attempt to play them, even
though they were beyond me at that point.’
is a master at capturing the grandeur, spaciousness and reverence of this
music, and he offers new and compelling interpretations. He is not afraid to
explore what Messiaen himself described as ‘extremely delicate variations of rhythm and tempo’ –
inflections that are intensely personal, impossible to notate or replicate and
are frequently captivating. The enormous variety of touches called for across
the cycle are worthy of mention, most notably a wonderfully smooth legato. This
allows both the fluid shapes of the many unison passages to sing, such as the
plainsong Alleluia from Adorabo ad templum sanctum tuum (from Méditations),
as well as evoking the eternal in lengthy or quiet passages. The soul longing
for heaven in Alleluias sereins from L’Ascension is a particularly
the first time Messiaen’s complete works are
presented on American organs. Andrews has chosen two recent three-manual
instruments built by the renowned Massachusetts builder CB Fisk; St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Greenville,
North Carolina (built 2005) and the 2010 instrument in Auer Hall at Indiana
University. Both are blessed by being located in generous acoustical spaces.
two Fisk organs are a fine choice; magnificent in their range of dynamics and
colour, they are eminently suitable vehicles for this music. This reviewer
found himself repeatedly anticipating, enjoying and never tiring of the
gorgeous solo and mutation colours, weighty bass and reeds that reflect the
Fisk firm’s extensive research of
French instruments over many decades. Only the rather luscious, fulsome strings
betrayed the American heritage.
recording quality is excellent, with Roger Sherman from Loft expertly
negotiating the challenge of recording organs in resonant rooms, balancing
clarity with spaciousness. The recordings at Greenville in particular err
slightly towards the spacious; in no way is that intended as criticism, quite
the opposite in fact. Faster and denser passages inevitably lose a little
clarity, but to this reviewer’s
ears it is closer to what might be heard in concert. Impressively, each
movement is a complete take with the only splicing used to reduce ambient
such as La Nativité and L’Ascension are rightly amongst Messiaen’s more frequently performed works,
however, as with most composers there are hidden gems to be found amongst a
complete reading that rarely find their way onto concert programmes. Communion
(which contains one of the finest examples of Messiaen’s birdsong writing) coupled with
the electrifying Sortie from Messe de la Pentecôte are two. The half-quirky and half-gorgeous Diptyque another.
It is worth noting that the gorgeous half was transcribed as the last movement
of the Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps. Puer Natus (again from Livre Du
Saint Sacrement) reminds us that in addition to the wonder of his
exotic rhythms, modes and birdsong, a pillar of Messiaen’s music – perhaps the most important pillar – is plainsong. To quote the
‘Only plainsong possesses at once the purity, the joy
and the lightness necessary to send the soul towards Truth…..the first offence
of our immediate predecessors was its harmonisation.”
Christ ressuscité ŕ Marie-Madeleine (The Appearance of the Risen Christ to Mary Magdalene) from Livre Du Saint
Sacrement is surely one of Messiaen’s most evocative and successful pieces of programmatic
writing, worthy of much wider hearing.
Olivier Messiaen departed to his higher and cherished calling some 25 years
ago, it has been fascinating to see how his music has gradually settled into
the broader repertory.
the past decades we have been able to see how Messiaen’s music has followed a path of increasing
acceptance, understanding and admiration. Michael Dudman’s somewhat brave inclusion of Les
Bergers from La Nativité in his 1981 recording of the Opera House
organ came at a time when Messiaen was still considered (in
Australia at least) quite avant-garde. Yet as the ‘emancipation of dissonance’ (a term associated with Arnold
Schoenberg, Charles Ives and jazz great Duke Ellington) inevitably and
relentlessly progresses, such an inclusion in a recital programme now would be
more likely to be met by the new listener with curiosity and appreciation rather
than derision. Already the harmonies of early Messiaen works such as the
post-Debussy Le banquet céleste and Apparition de l'église éternelle would
trouble few, and La Nativité and L’Ascension long ago re-set
boundaries of tonality and rhythmic invention.
organists are indeed fortunate to claim Messiaen as one of our own. He may have
the last words:
bird songs to those who dwell in cities and have never heard them, make rhythms
for those who know only military marches or jazz, and paint colours for those
who see none.’
Andrews has fulfilled Messiaen’s
mission most admirably. Highly recommended.
---Sydney Organ Journal