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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité (1969)
Tom Winpenny (organ)
rec. 2018, Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavík, Iceland
Reviewed as a 16-bit download
Pdf booklet included
NAXOS 8.573979 [73:47]

Mention recordings of Messiaen’s organ music and, apart from the composer’s partial survey from 1956 (EMI-Warner), the following artists spring to mind: Jennifer Bate (Unicorn-Kanchana, Regis, Treasure Island); Dame Gillian Weir (Collins, Priory); Oliver Latry (Deutsche Grammophon); and Hans-Ola Ericsson (BIS). To that select list must now be added Tom Winpenny’s ongoing cycle for Naxos. I’ve reviewed the first, second and third instalments, of which this is the fourth, and while they’re not the most illuminating, Winpenny’s performances are always thoughtful and utterly committed. That said, I’ve no reservations about the engineering, which has been excellent thus far, each of the chosen instruments captured in sound of thrilling weight and presence. Happily, a quick audition suggests this new release is no exception.

The latest venue is Iceland’s largest church, Hallgrimskirkja, whose votive vastness challenges large-scale orchestral/vocal pieces, such as Jón Leifs’ Edda, Part I, recorded there in 2006 (BIS). The main organ, built by Orgelbau Klais of Bonn, was inaugurated in December 1992. And what a beast it is, with four manuals, pedal, 72 stops and 5,275 pipes. For the most part, it was privately funded, with donors able to purchase specific pipes, some of which are still available. In general, Winpenny’s choice of organs - the Harrison & Harrison of St Albans cathedral, the Reger of St Giles’, Edinburgh, and the Stalhuth-Jann of Église Saint-Martin, Dudelange, Luxembourg - have been well suited to the music played.

Winpenny has covered a fair bit of this rep already, ranging from Le Banquet Céleste (1928) to Verset pour la Fête de la Dédicace (1960) and the posthumous Monodie (?1963). Messiaen wrote nothing more for the organ until Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité (1969). That was to be his penultimate organ piece, the final one, Le Livre du Saint-Sacrement, premiered in 1986. (Not long afterwards, I was privileged to hear Jennifer Bate play that at the Royal Festival Hall, the maître himself in attendance.) Returning to the nine-movement Méditations, which was itself preceded by Messiaen’s huge oratorio, La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ. I was deeply impressed with Sylvain Cambreling’s 2000 recording of the latter, now part of a splendid box from SWR Music. In terms of scale and complexity, I’d say Méditations is an equally daunting work that, in the right hands, can be just as rewarding. For comparison here, I’ve selected Ericsson’s 1989 recording, played on the 1987 Grönlund organ of Luleå cathedral, Sweden. Not a random choice, for there have been instances where I felt he and Winpenny shared a cooler, more cerebral take to this music than, say, Bate or Weir.

Méditations has its roots in the improvisations provided for an event on 23 November 1967, which celebrated both the anniversary of his beloved Église de la Sainte-Trinité and its upgraded Cavaillé-Coll. Messiaen gave the first public performance of the piece, completed in 1969, three years later. Incidentally, I’ve opted for the composer’s less formal movement titles in this review, rather than the unwieldy originals.

Winpenny’s first movement, ‘The mystery of the begotten’, makes for an arresting opener. Not at all the head-over-heart approach I’d expected; in fact, this full-bodied, very dramatic reading reminds me far more of Bate/Weir than Ericsson. If you prefer a truly forensic account of this movement - and, indeed, the work as a whole - then the latter’s precision-engineered performance is the one to go for. Trouble is, there’s so much more to this music, and the ultra-refined Grönlund and BIS’s rather dry recording would have us believe. Winpenny, like Bate and Weir before him, seems to agree, investing this music with all the richness, variety and rolling splendour it needs. Sveinn Kjartansson’s superb engineering helps enormously in in this regard, the hefty, well-defined pedals a special delight.

As Winpenny points out in his detailed but very readable liner-notes, this is a remarkably complex score, and the fact that he executes it with such aplomb suggests a deep understanding of the music’s inner workings. The avian calls of aptly titled ‘Birds and garden’, are beautifully rendered, this whole section impressively built and blended. As for those big, crowing dissonances, they’re simply glorious. Crucially, Winpenny finds so much affirmation and incident here, which, in turn, generates a momentum that Ericsson seems to miss. Ditto the light-filled loveliness of the third movement, ‘One’s relationship not only with God, but in God’, which really demands greater comfort than he’s prepared to give it. I suppose that’s the curse of the comparatives, for the Swede’s recording, once admired, now sounds terribly austere. By contrast, Winpenny, taps into a deep, abiding humanity at this point, something only a few rivals can match.

The fourth movement, ‘He is’, offers a panoply of colours and supple rhythms that, in Winpenny’s capable hands, create a magnificent kaleidoscope of sound. (Goodness, this is playing of the highest order.) At moments like this, I’m also struck by what a fine organ this is, with a commanding and characterful ‘voice’ that combines the modern taste for clarity with good, old-fashioned warmth and woodiness. As for the recording, it has all the space the music demands, without muddying echoes, which enhances the grit and grandeur of Messiaen’s writing. What follows, ‘Colour; God as Father’, is surely a reminder of the work’s improvisatory origins, Winpenny as deft and daring as any organist I’ve heard. And what a magnificent edifice he constructs here, every bit as awe-inspiring as the composer’s grand, coruscating vision of the Eternal Church. The close of this movement is blessed with music of quiet, sustaining radiance that’s especially moving in this deeply felt performance.

By contrast, the sixth movement, ‘The Word; the light of humanity’, with its vaulting, heraldic opening, speaks of real majesty and power. Once again, I was bowled over by the sheer cogency, the remarkable rightness, of Winpenny’s reading, which is at once attractively proportioned and brimming with insights. As if that weren’t praise enough, he finds ringing quality here - a real sense of jubilation - that’s counterbalanced by a deep(ly) reassuring, firmament-filling bass. Make no mistake, this is Messiaen - and this organist - at their considerable best. Actually, it’s a perfect storm, a happy alignment of great music, an intuitive artist and a top-notch recording. The seventh movement ‘Communicable language’, is packed with epiphanies, the organ’s Stygian rumble thrilling but never overdone. Moreover, Winpenny ekes out a dazzling array of colours from the instrument’s upper reaches.

The final movements - ‘Divine attributes; a desire for wings’ and ‘I am that I am’ - encapsulate the astonishing depth and diversity of Messiaen’s distinctive idiom. Right to the end, the organist and engineer are in perfect harmony, working together to create some of the most breathtaking organ sounds imaginable. Indeed, there’s a palpable joy to Winpenny’s playing, here and elsewhere on this album, that I haven’t heard from him before. All of which augurs well for his Livre du Saint-Sacrement.

Richard Gowers’ La Nativité was one of my top picks for 2018; not surprisingly, Tom Winpenny’s Méditations has gone straight to this year’s shortlist.

Dan Morgan



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