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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
L'Ascension (1933-1934) [25:04]
Diptyque (1928-1930) [10:51]
Offrande au Saint-Sacrement (1930s) [6:04]
Prélude (1928-1930) [8:14]
Le Banquet Céleste (1928) [7:14]
Apparition de l'Église Éternelle (1932) [9:06]
Tom Winpenny (organ)
rec. 17-18 February 2015, St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland
Reviewed as a 16-bit download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
NAXOS 8.573471 [66:33]

Having just reviewed Treasure Island’s reissue of Jennifer Bate’s Messiaen cycle – and revisited Gillian Weir’s and Hans-Ola Ericsson’s along the way – this music is still very fresh in my mind. That’s why I wasted no time downloading this new collection, the second in Tom Winpenny’s series for Naxos. I gave the first a guarded welcome (review). There he plays the recently refurbished Harrison & Harrison of St Albans Cathedral; here it's the 1992 Rieger at St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh. I was pleased to see that Adrian Lucas of Acclaim Productions, who did such a good job on that initial issue, is also the engineer on this one.

It seems this new cycle is proceeding more or less chronologically; the first volume was devoted to La Nativité du Seigneur (1935), while the present one focuses on the late 1920s and early to mid 1930s. Offrande au Saint-Sacrement and Prélude, discovered in 1997, may only be of peripheral interest but they are still worth hearing. At the very least they give us some insight into the composer's formative years. Incidentally, the Weir, Ericsson and Latry sets include these pieces; Bate's, completed in the 1980s, doesn't.

Derived from an orchestral piece penned between 1932 and 1933, L'Ascension pulses with music of remarkable confidence and power. Indeed, it’s as if the composer had already decided on a rough direction of travel. Winpenny’s account of Majesté du Christ signals much the same thing. It’s cleanly articulated, but I find his dynamic contrasts a tad contrived at times. On the plus side he's keenly aware of the score's epiphanies. I nearly inserted the adjective ‘ecstatic’ there, but then this slightly detached opener and the cool Alleluias that follow confirm my feelings about Winpenny's Messiaen; it's more about head than heart.

That's certainly true of his Transports de joie; despite thrilling heft and rhythmic certainty there’s little of the emotional intensity that Bate, Weir and Ericsson bring to the music at this point. Winpenny makes amends with a quietly radiant Prière, whose sense of musical and spiritual uplift is superbly realised. Such bursts of inspiration suggest he has more than a passing acquaintance with this repertoire; alas, that’s not enough when his rivals establish - and sustain - a profound and compelling narrative. In short, this intermittently insightful performance is just too earthbound to engage and satisfy.

The delightfully deft Diptyque is one of the stand-out items in Bate’s box, and it gave me great pleasure to be reacquainted with it before listening to Winpenny’s version. Once again I was struck by Lucas’s recording, and how effortlessly it captures the sound of this magnificent Rieger; however, I was much less taken with the playing, which seems almost perfunctory after the animation and character of Bate’s account. Yes, there are moments of real beauty here, but they just don’t add up to a very convincing or coherent whole.

As with most prototypes, musical or otherwise, the two early/posthumously discovered pieces are illuminating; for instance, one hears in the questing sound-whirls of Offrande strong hints of what is yet to come. The work’s deep, droning bass and its corona of filigreed loveliness are just wonderful. Ditto the ruminative little Prélude. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Winpenny seems more at ease with Messiaen-in-the-making, as his own approach to this music seems to be evolving too.

No such uncertainties about Le Banquet Céleste and Apparition de l'Église Éternelle, both of which find the composer in full and confident voice. That’s more than I can say about Winpenny, who has the notes but doesn't convey much else.This is a very dull feast; also, there’s little shape or thrill to Messiaen’s febrile vision of the Eternal Church. Bate isn’t at her best in these two pieces either, but Ericsson and Weir are very dramatic indeed. That said, for a memorable account of that final work – sculpted in glittering sound – Thomas Trotter is hard to beat (Decca).

Winpenny’s Messiaen is still a work in progress; very good engineering, though.

Dan Morgan



RIORY, bis AND deitc