Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité
Tom Winpenny (organ)
rec. 2018, Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavík, Iceland
Reviewed as a 16-bit download
Pdf booklet included
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
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.
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.
was one of my top picks for 2018; not surprisingly, Tom Winpenny’s Méditations has gone straight to this year’s shortlist.