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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Complete Organ Works
Hans-Ola Ericsson (organ)
rec. 1988-1990, Luleå Cathedral, Sweden and *November 2008, the Katharinenkirche, Oppenhein, Germany.
BIS-CD-1770-72 [7 CDs: 64:28 + 61:37 + 67:31 + 75:40 + 78:29 + 76:18 + 81:03]
Experience Classicsonline

CD 1
L'Ascension (1933) [29:18]
Le banquet céleste (1926/28?) [7:50]
Apparition de l'Église Éternelle (1932) [11:11]
Diptyque (1930) [14:48]
CD 2
La Nativité du Seigneur (1935) [61:13]
CD 3
Les corps glorieux (1939) [55:11]
Verset pour la fête de la dédicace (1960) [11:35]
CD 4
Messe de la Pentecôte (1950) [30:09]
Livre d'Orgue (1951) [44:47]
CD 5
Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité (1969) [78:13]
CD 6
Livre du Saint Sacrement (1984) [119:16]
CD 7
Livre du Saint Sacrement (ctd.)
Monodie (1963 ?) [4:42]*
Offrande au Saint Sacrement (1930/35) [5:30]*
Prélude (1928?) [8:15]*
The Birdsong in Messiaen's Music

I have long been a fan of Hans-Ola Ericsson's playing, and am still under the spell of his Four Beast's Amen which remains a must for all interested in contemporary work for organ. Another must for all of those interested in 20th century organ music is the oeuvre of Olivier Messiaen, created on the great Cavaillé-Coll organ in the Church of La Trinité in Paris, where the composer was organist for most of his life. Anyone even vaguely interested in Messiaen's work may have noticed the original single discs of this set when they came out between 1989 and 1992, with their distinctive 18th century bird illustrations by Olof Rudbeck. It is unfortunate that we lose these in this re-release, but with a significant number of Messiaen CDs appearing with birds on the cover it is understandable that the designers went for a different look. Fortunately, even in this now budget '7 CDs for the price of 3' box, we get Anders Eckenberg's excellent booklet notes pretty much as they appeared on the original releases. The musical content is preserved and enhanced with the addition of the three works which were discovered after Messiaen's death, and disc 7 even includes the birdsong recordings which were on the original volume 6, and Dr. Gustaf Aulén's descriptions of each bird are included at the end of the booklet. No-one will be disappointed by the chunky booklet which makes up much of the weight of this box, and the texts are worth its price on their own.

I have to admit to being something of a Messiaen organ junkie, having started my addiction with Gillian Weir's broadcast recordings on BBC Radio 3 way back in the early 1980s. Though recorded in association with Radio 3, her recordings on the set from Collins Classics 70312 are not those which I used to have scattered around on well worn cassette tapes, and this box is anyway alas no longer available. These recordings can now be sought out on individual discs from the Priory label, and by all accounts are still in the front rank. While we are dealing with blanket comparisons, there is one set which I've had pass through my collection which is no longer resident, that played by Willem Tanke originally on the Lindenberg label, and now available on Brilliant Classics. This is a very good set played on the incredible organ and acoustic of the St. Bavo Basilica in Haarlem, and is every bit worth its current modest asking price. I'm afraid I found it a bit on the dull side however, and not quite able to get the sap rising in quite the same way as some of the other recordings I have as references. If I were to pin my colours to the mast, then my reasons for not warming to this set would have to be its rather down to earth character which, in works of a conception and content which almost always have a strong spiritual element, loses too much of the essence of Messiaen's message.

Neither of the aforementioned sets included the Monodie, Offrande au Saint Sacrement or Prélude, which are later discoveries and are also missing from the almost legendary set played by Jennifer Bate, now available in a box on the Regis label RRC 6001, formerly on Unicorn-Kanchna, and also available separately as individual or double discs. For completists, these pieces do form part of the Deutsche Grammophon 471 480-2 set played by Olivier Latry on the organ of Notre-Dame in Paris, which is my other main reference. Both of these have been reviewed elsewhere on this site. A footnote to this list but by no means least in significance is the collection of Messiaen's own recordings. Made in 1956, these are in often less than glorious mono and on a La Trinité organ which was badly in need of restoration or re-tuning at the very least. The relics which appear on a 4 CD collection CZS 7 67400 2 called par lui-même are however priceless records of the composer's own playing, although the improvisatory quality he brings to some of the music means that organists should probably beware of taking these versions as being the gospel truth when it comes to interpretation.

Hans-Ola Ericsson's recordings on the BIS label have long been acclaimed as being among the best of the more recent recordings, and returning to his set in this context is for me like greeting an old friend. Returning to the shelves at a very attractive price and with full booklet notes, I would like to recommend this set unreservedly, and then spend the time saved by not writing a hugely long review standing on a street corner persuading people to try it and buy it. There is more to be said however, and it feels more like a privilege than a duty to be getting my teeth into a set of pieces which I feel are some of the best works of the last century in any medium. As well as this, I've recently been discovering more about the organ works of Charles Tournemire, so I've also grown up a bit and now have a better understanding of the way in which Messiaen represents a quantum leap in the French organ tradition.

The main body of these recordings were made on the 1987 Grönlund organ at Luleå Cathedral, Sweden. A very fine new instrument, this has plenty of the 'orchestral' punch which Messiaen's work often requires, as well as being able to conjure those soft, timeless meditations which take us into different realms. A comparison with either Latry or Bate on their authentically French instruments does however show a marked difference in character. Messiaen's writing, much as I love and admire it, does embrace the sometimes blowsy and colourfully exhibitionist side of the Catholic faith, and the Swedish instrument does seem to have something of a civilising effect on the music at times. Listen to the Transports de joie from L'ascension from Latry in Paris and revel in unctuous, almost unnaturally spectral splendour. Take the same track with Bate in the massive acoustic of St. Pierre de Beauvais and you feel as if your entire being is being lifted from the ground on some kind of spiritual hovercraft. The impact is there with Ericsson, but there is a sense of restraint, of an elegance and roundness of sound, of power unleashed but not hitting the listener in quite such a physical fashion.

There is one such piece which, almost seeming to have been designed for the psychological slow cut in a high class movie, to me has to have that sense of physical connection - you need to feel your chest wanting to rise above your head. The eternally rising progressions in Apparition de l'Église Éternelle deliberately form a kind of musical drug, each repetition reinforcing the last. Ericsson's sense of mounting drama is wonderful in this piece, and the instrument supports him in giving the impression of an almost endless reserve of crescendo. Jennifer Bate has a more insinuating, nasal and reedy sound from the organ in the opening, and this means that the contrast with the change of stops about 3:00 in is more pronounced. This again is a recording which hits the spot - corny as hell, but one to scream from the rooftops. Latry opens his set for DG with this piece, and what a curtain raiser. He does however come in shortest - 9.45 to Ericsson's 11:11, and I do feel some of the rising tension is lost in the pacing of the piece, spectacular though the organ sound is. In a sense it's too spectacular - all grimly earnest show and rather less content. I prefer the more subtle colourings of the other two recordings.

La Nativité du Seigneur neatly fits onto one CD and has become something of a staple of the organ catalogue. Once again, Ericsson's performance is one of the utmost clarity, and one has the feeling that there is nothing imposing itself between the music and its message. All of the hushed reverence is present, as well as the more turbulent stresses in Le Verbe and Les Anges. Again however, the voice of doom in the bass lines when Jésus accepte la Souffrance is more of a mildly gruff uncle, where Bate's is the voice of your most feared schoolteacher. Latry's pedal here is more that of a throaty pharmacist offering soothing lozenges than anything really threatening. Where he wins is in the final Dieu parmi nous, whose descending bass lines can really rattle your tonsillectomy scars. Bate is also good here, with plenty of atmosphere, but almost engulfed in resonance. Ericsson takes a swifter, more dramatic tempo in the opening chords, but sustains more later on. I feel the organ and the engineer's treatment of the acoustic might possibly have conjured a final nth more of atmospheric potential in the gentler sections, but what you do get is a true sense of what Messiaen actually wrote, rather than anything that the environment may or may not have dictated.

The pacing of another of Messiaen's better known organ cycles Les corps glorieux is also of importance, and there is an argument against Ericsson's swifter rendition of a movement such as Les Eaux de la grâce. His sense of proportion over the entirety of the work is however pretty much without fault, and Latry's more languid traversal of the same movement can equally be seen as being rather self indulgent. For that matter Bate kicks in at 2:34 to Ericsson's 3:06, so who's counting. What one should always remember with the BIS set is that Hans-Ola Ericsson was able to work closely with the composer throughout, you can be sure Messiaen was more than clear as to his intentions and desires in this music. Disc four provides very clean performances of two of Messiaen's strongest pieces from the 1950s, the Messe de la Pentecôte and Livre d'Orgue, the mellow rounded tones of the Grönlund organ creating delicious colours and textures. While the extremes of contrast are not so great as with the Notre Dame organ in, say, the remarkable opening Reprises par interversion of the Livre d'Orgue then this does at least have the advantage of rendering the musical argument that much less disparate and more coherent in a number of ways. I also prefer Ericsson's relaxed way with the gestures in the second movement Pièce en trio, which Latry's rather random sounding rubato makes into more of a rocky and uneven road than it need be. The same coupling of works appears on disc one of Jennifer Bate's set, and I'm still very much enamoured of the Beauvais Cathedral's multitude of almost human vocalisations and the sense of discourse in several of the movements in the Messe de la Pentecôte. It is however only Gillian Weir who, bucking the trend set by Messiaen's own recording, plays the song of the lark in the central section of the final Sortie swiftly enough to make it sound like actual birdsong, rather than a lark stuck in congealing aspic. If I haven't mentioned Weir until now, it is only because of the unavailability of the Collins set which occupies a sizeable chunk of my box set 'shelf'. Price comparisons also make this and the Latry set less competitive than the BIS box, but if you have individual favourites among these works then Gillian Weir on the Priory label has to be a front runner. I love the boxy low pipe which belts out the low notes in the first movement of Bate's Livre d'Orgue, and this is one instance in which the acoustic significantly helps the music, showing how Messiaen explores the space and tonal relationships as they hang in the air between the notes. Bate is also infinitely preferable to Latry in the aforementioned Pièce en trio, which is a miniature masterpiece - but in which a few important inflections are again rather covered by that washy resonance. It is also interesting to hear how each player 'hears' the various birds in the magical Chants d'oiseaux fourth movement - vive la difference, ici

By now you may be gaining an impression of the comparative status each of these three sets has acquired in my opinion. While I admit to a sentimental attachment to Jenifer Bate's remarkable cycle and love its sheer sense of drama and atmosphere, there is a problem with the vastness of the acoustic out of which the organ looms, and much of the detail in Messiaen's writing can be as good as lost. Olivier Latry looked like being a panacea to all of these problems in a set which presents a remarkable if rather idealistic recording of the Notre Dame instrument. I always have a niggling feeling with this set however, and that is that the engineers and performer are adding just a little too much of themselves to the music. I have listened to it often, trying hard to love it as much as I'd expected to, but I have never really warmed to Latry's playing or the up-front representation of the Paris organ. This is where Hans-Ola Ericsson and BIS win over both, for while his modern instrument might offer less of the drama and extremes of palette as the French instruments, the recording provides us with all of the amazing content of Messiaen's scores, and Ericsson is an ideal guide through each piece, imposing little in the way of 'interpretation' and allowing us closer to Messiaen's vision as a result.

The magnificent Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité is another one of those cycles which fits perfectly on a single CD, and I have nothing but superlatives for Ericsson's playing here. He does take a fair bit longer than Latry over the whole cycle, but is almost identical to the second in comparison with Bate. Where Jennifer Bate beats all comers is in the huge Livre du Saint Sacrement. Here she moves to Messiaen's own instrument, that in the Church of Saint-Trinité in Paris, and with the composer on hand to provide his own uniquely poetic guidance to the player. This was also the case with Ericsson, but the atmosphere of the Saint-Trinité organ, that fact that this was at the time of the work's premiere, and the sheer synergy between composer, instrument and location makes this one of the all time great organ recordings. Hans-Ola Ericsson is very good of course, and I don't want to take anything away from his achievement - it's just that the milder, less overtly contrasting colours of the Grönlund organ don't draw me in and carry me through in quite the same all-embracing and involving way that happens with Bate. I used to have the Saint-Trinité recording on the double cassette release, and wore the things out in the end. People would phone me up and hear the same music in the background, days or weeks apart. 'It's a very long piece' I would reply.

The final disc on Ericsson's set adds the three posthumous works: Monodie, Offrande au Saint Sacrement and Prélude Recorded on another even newer instrument, the tone of these and the earlier recordings is not shockingly different, although the more effulgent Katharinenkirche acoustic does kick in with an abundant contribution in the louder passages. In fact, these pieces slip into the set with remarkable ease. None of the works are a make or break when it comes to choosing your ultimate Messiaen cycle, but each has its worth, and the early Prélude which finishes the set has clear technical and musical links to Messiaen's teacher Marcel Dupré. The addition of the recorded birdsong was always a nice touch in this set, and I'm very glad to see its return here.

So, to conclude: yes, buy this set. We're extremely fortunate to have it released in such an economically viable package, and with all its bounteous extras intact. My personal view is that there is no such thing as a perfect cycle of recordings of the organ works of Olivier Messiaen, and so if you are anything like me, you will end up with far too many boxes parked far too close to more multiple boxes of Mahler symphonies for comfort when it comes to domestic arguments in support of frugal living against the essential need for culture and fine music. I'm far too attached to my set with Jennifer Bate to consider relinquishing it, but would suggest that, with both sets together coming in at about the price of the Olivier Latry box on its own you could do worse than have both. Bate wins in terms of sheer atmosphere and authentic French organ colour - the kind which belches garlic roughness and incense-aromatic arrogance, as well as terrifying and infinite realms of beauty and mystery. Indeed, no-one should be without her Livre du Saint Sacrement. The Unicorn-Kanchana/Regis recordings do however suffer from an overdose of resonance almost entirely throughout, and if you want the clarity of Messiaen's music less encumbered by this problem then the BIS box is a must. I have always admired this set and, comparing it to Olivier Latry's recordings, now know a bit more about why this should be the case. The Deutsche Grammophon cycle does represent something of a technical milestone in this repertoire and Olivier Latry's performances are a remarkable achievement, but the results can be somewhat unremitting and somehow impersonal; even synthetic, if one is prepared to express an extreme view. These are recordings with which you can demonstrate your Hi-Fi and impress your friends, but this is not what Messiaen's organ music is really about.

Hans-Ola Ericsson understands both the complexity as well as the simplicity of Messiaen, without over-blowing his grander gestures or filling his thinner textures with all kinds of unnecessary extra inflection and interpretative licence. Messiaen's organ scores are clear, but often present fields of notes without a bar line in sight. This can be seen as an invitation to mould and shape, pull and stretch, but in the end it's like the original version of Debussy's simple ditty for flute Syrinx - all the information is there in the notes. Duration, intensity, rhythm, phrasing: you don't need much more than common sense, and an absolute control of your instrument and a deep knowledge, sympathy and understanding of the idiom which the composer inhabits. All of these Hans-Ola Ericsson has, and this makes his set one of the most consistently rewarding ever made.

Dominy Clements


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