Olivier Messiaen

February/March 2017 listenings

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Of the music that’s been making a special impact on me in the last couple of months, i particularly want to flag up various albums of piano music. Peter Hill‘s renowned three-disc recording of Olivier Messiaen‘s epic cycle Catalogue d’Oiseaux has been reissued under license from Unicorn by Treasure Island Music. i honestly wonder whether this may be the most wholly immersive recording of piano music that i’ve ever heard. This is partly due to Messiaen’s intricately worked out sense of narrative, occupying an imaginary day listening to the birds around him, each movement focusing on a different creature. Extreme contrasts and shifts of character and attitude occur constantly throughout, Messiaen capturing the various behaviours and mannerisms of these birds in different contexts (Book 4, devoted to the Reed Warbler, being one of the most radical in its variety). But the depth of immersion comes just as much from Peter Hill’s staggeringly virtuosic and transparent performance (the recording quality is simply immaculate). Every note and chord is positioned and aligned with utmost precision yet, paradoxically, at the same time seems to be the product of raw improvisatory élan, as though the music were emerging from Messiaen’s mind in real time. Read more

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Mix Tape #38 : Organ

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The theme of the new 5:4 mix tape is one i’ve been wanting to explore for a long while: the organ. It’s an instrument with which i’ve had a pretty infatuated relationship since my teenage years, both as a listener and as a very occasional practitioner (organ was my second study alongside composition during my first degree, and for a few years i co-directed a church choir). People tend to have a certain idea of what they think organ music is like. People tend to be wrong. i hope this mix tape will go some way to illuminate what the organ is capable of, what it can be, when wielded with real imagination. As always, the mix consists of personal favourites, encompassing a pretty wide range of approaches to the instrument. i’ve structured the mix in four sections, each lasting roughly half an hour.

The first is all about contrasts, alternating between vast tuttis and more restrained, inward modes of expression. The pieces by Bjørn Andor Drage and Marcel Dupré are more the latter; Drage, in particular, makes it sound as though the organ is struggling to speak, Dupré is more concerned with not so much presenting/shaping material as gently caressing it into new forms. Thomas AdèsPreambulum holds back just as much but is exercised with an incessant sense of child-like play. Naji Hakim is emphatically at the other end of the continuum, blurring the distinction between a fanfare and a toccata – both of which sound like they’re made out of laser beams – before launching into a frenzied series of final flourishes, and all in just two minutes. Judith Bingham and Petr Eben pass between these extremes. Bingham seemingly allows the music to do its own thing for the most part; there’s a really lovely sense of spontaneity, and the effusive climax two-thirds through feels like an entirely organic zenith. The sixth movement from Eben’s work about the life of Job alternates between dense quiet clusters and counterpoint before an ever-growing sequence of pulling shapes brings about a colossal musical crunch, as though an angel had misjudged its descent and slammed into the ground. This is followed by a section devoted to texture, in the form of dense walls and piercing clusters from John Zorn – treating the organ like a lab rat – and György Ligeti, cycling tonal colours from Charlemagne Palestine, and heaving wails and roars from the one and only Stefan Fraunberger, caught in a heroic struggle of WTF proportions in order to get a defunct instrument to do anything approximating coherence (and succeeding).

The mix then turns to ecstasy, captured in deliciously soft shimmerings in the exquisite opening to the middle movement of Sorabji‘s First Organ Symphony and the conclusion of one of Olivier Messiaen‘s late Méditations, both composers emphasising metric regularity to heighten the music’s inner power. Others cause their ecstasy to swell into apogees of overload, heard here in David Briggs‘ transcription of the Adagietto from Mahler‘s Fifth, a slow-burn from Louis Vierne that works an almost absurdly simple idea into a looming mountain of fire, and a wondrous back-and-forth from Pēteris Vasks, whose arrangement of his own Viatore (originally written for strings, but much more majestic in this version) often makes me think of Howard Skempton’s Lento, cycling round a common idea but always sounding somehow different and new. The last section is all about drama, often utilising the massive timbral pile-ups of the full organ. Edwin Lemare‘s transcription of Saint-SaënsDanse macabre is pure brilliance and to my mind works way better than the original, tapping into Gothic levels of sinister malevolence. i’ve included another slow-burner from Vierne, this time the second movement from his First Organ Symphony, a dazzlingly exciting demonstration of the dramatic potential and power of fugue. The counterpoint here is simply amazing, and the colossal, cluster-bomb climax will clear out any remaining cobwebs your speakers (or, indeed, your house) may have. Rarely-heard Soviet composer Eduard Khagagortyan gets seriously carried away in the opening movement of his Symphony No. 3, which i’ve included in its 8½-minute entirety partly because he is so rarely-heard, but mainly because the range of imagination in its convoluted narrative is so impressive, and Khagagortyan’s musical language is decidedly piquant, even downright tart. Simon Johnson‘s Holy Week improvisations recontextualise familiar melodies in an altogether new sonic environment to fittingly disconcerting effect, while David Briggs, at the console of Gloucester Cathedral in his own improvised Symphony, reinvents the French organ style in a slow movement that builds to a light-filled blaze of colours (you can hear the whole symphony here).

Beginning the sections and exemplifying them are pieces by Charles Tournemire, who in my view is one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, and – bizarrely – remains almost entirely unknown beyond devotees of organ music. A late figure within the French organ school, he was a significant influence on Messiaen, particularly with regard to improvisation. A self-confessed mystic, Tournemire was responsible for creating one of the longest and most inventive compositional projects ever undertaken: L’Orgue Mystique, a fifteen-hour cycle of music (in 51 parts) inspired by the plainsong melodies used throughout the Catholic Church’s liturgical year. When his music does occasionally appear in organ recitals or church services (his non-organ music pretty much never does in the UK), it tends to be only the huge final movements that end each part of the cycle. i’ve included two of these: his enormous, borderline overexcited improvisation on the ‘Te deum’ melody, which only survived thanks to Maurice Duruflé transcribing the piece from a recording (played here by Jane Watts in what is surely the most exhilarating recording of it by anyone), and his yet more furious Postlude for the Sunday in the Octave of Ascension, which in terms of both the extraordinary use of harmony – pushing tonality far beyond breaking point, essentially redefining it on the fly – and drama – each successive episode getting more carried away than the previous one – make it seem all the more incomprehensible that his music should be performed so infrequently and his contribution to twentieth century music be so unknown. But his quieter music, which dominates most of L’Orgue Mystique, is just as potent. His take on the Easter Communion chant quickly moves away from melody into a kind of semi-frozen (or should that be transfixed?) textural miasma, whereas the Offertory from the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost becomes a soft, dreamy act of the purest tenderness. The mix ends with another Communion, from the feast of Pentecost itself, Tournemire reworking it into music of remarkable, balmy stillness, as though brilliantly illuminated from above, its chords shimmering with warmth. Genius.

A little over two hours of music that pulls out both the real and the imaginative stops; here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links to buy the music. As ever, the mix can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Blasts from the Past: Olivier Messiaen – Quatuor pour la fin du temps

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World premières are understandably exciting occasions—but, equally, they can often be fraught with difficulty and no little controversy. The annals of music history contain many such examples, from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to Cage’s 4’33”, but today marks the 75th anniversary of one of the most legendary and poignant of them all. On 15 June 1940, during World War II, the Germans took the French city of Verdun, and Olivier Messiaen was among the soldiers captured that day. Initially imprisoned in a makeshift camp—situated in a large field not far from Nancy, where he met clarinettist Henri Akoka and cellist Étienne Pasquier—Messiaen was subsequently moved to Stalag VIIIa near Görlitz, in Silesia, inhabited by over 15,000 prisoners of war, including violinist Jean Le Boulaire. His time here, thanks in part to the kindness of one of the camp guards, Hauptmann Karl-Erich Brüll, who furnished Messiaen with pencils, erasers and music paper, resulted in the composition of one of his most famous and best-loved works, the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). Read more

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New releases: Messiaen, Paul Dolden, Richard Uttley, iamamiwhoami, Davíð Brynjar Franzson, Shivers

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Among the crop of more interesting recent releases is a reissue of Messiaen‘s complete organ works that is easily the most affordable currently available. Treasure Island Music has brought together the famous recordings made by Jennifer Bate in the late 1970s/early 1980s—originally issued by Unicorn-Kanchana/Regis—in a 6-CD slimline box set costing around £20, which for 7½ hours of music is an exceptional deal. But it’s not just about economy, these performances were extensively shaped by Messiaen himself, Bate working in close collaboration with him during the recording process. Two of the discs were even recorded at La Trinité in Paris, on the very organ where the works were first composed (and, in many cases, premièred), the remaining discs recorded at Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Beauvais. But it’s not just about having the composer’s imprimatur either; Bate’s renditions of these complex works are navigated with stunning clarity—never is it apparent that these recordings are several decades old—and her fidelity to the scores is in many ways greater than that of Messiaen’s own recordings. Read more

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Messiaen on Speed (or Dieu parmi nous – what not to do)

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Being Christmas Day, organists up and down the land will be putting Messiaen‘s Dieu parmi nous through its paces. In the UK, it’s become practically as ubiquitous as Handel’s Messiah, so with the wonderful and timeless “Messiah on Crack” in mind, i offer you what we might perhaps call “Messiaen on Speed”.

At the 2001 Proms, Wayne Marshall gave an organ recital that included the last two movements of La Nativité. Whether Marshall was drunk, over-excited, showing off, taking the piss, eager to get home early, or some wild combination of all the above i have no idea, but the result rather boggles the mind. Marshall takes most of the music at a tempo so fast as to be way beyond ridiculous, his fingers literally spilling over the keys—wrong notes a go-go—sounding like an organ transcription of one of Conlon Nancarrow’s more frantic studies. Inevitably, all the detail of Messiaen’s material is completely lost, and the closing toccata simply has to be heard to be believed. Marshall turns Messiaen’s coruscating hymn of joy into a excruciating but hilarious exercise in meaningless velocity. Oh, and the organ’s out of tune too.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS!

Messiaen on Speed (Wayne Marshall plays Dieu parmi nous)

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Choral Evensong (Wells Cathedral): music by Judith Bingham, Philip Wilby and Messiaen

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Today’s service of Choral Evensong from Wells Cathedral—part of the New Music Wells Festival—broke the moribund trend of these broadcasts to celebrate English banalities in aspic, and revelled in a collection of new choral music.

It got off to a poor start, however; the American composer Gary Davison‘s setting of a text by Thomas Ken, Glory to thee, my God, this night, did little more than execute the most perfunctory and predictable word-painting; it’s an utter waste of a really rather lovely text—do we really need yet more composers incessantly churning out this banal brand of generic guff?

Following the first hymn, though, wonder of wonders: the alternative canticles! It’s incredibly rare these days to find a cathedral that actually remembers these alternatives exist, rarer still that composers see fit to set them to music. Kudos to Wells and to Judith Bingham for being prepared to break with Anglican tradition and be imaginative! Read more

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Choral Evensong – Eve of Ascension Day (Lincoln Cathedral): music by Patrick Gowers and Messiaen

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Tonight is the eve of the feast of Ascension Day, so today’s broadcast of Choral Evensong explored this theme, coming from Lincoln Cathedral.

The anthem was Patrick GowersViri Galilaei, and regular readers of this blog will know of my love for this piece, having written about it on a number of occasions. It’s a superlative work, beginning shrouded in mystery and obscurity (and listen out for what sounds like the use of a highly appropriate zimbelstern stop tinkling away above the voices); at the first, rather soft, mention of the word “Alleluia”, the whole tone of the anthem shifts, quickly building up to a coruscating series of loud Alleluias from the whole choir. A toccata paves the way for the work’s climax, a vast but brisk chorale punctuated at each cadence with further Alleluias—it’s difficult to listen without tears forming, joy is etched into every note of this piece. The choir performs this challenging piece superbly, clearly enjoying themselves, as well they should; it’s pleasing to see that Gowers’ anthem has finally supplanted (or, at least, provided an alternative to) Finzi’s over-performed God is gone up. Read more

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