Messiaen: Organ works (complete)

COMPOSERS: Messiaen
LABELS: Regis
WORKS: Organ works (complete)
PERFORMER: Jennifer Bate (organ)
CATALOGUE NO: RRC 6001 ADD/DDD Reissue (1980-88)
Messiaen is a rarity among composers for having made a significant and influential contribution to the repertoire for both the organ and the concert hall. These two sets of his complete organ works only underline anew his extraordinary variety of expression and ability to reinvent our understanding of how the organ works. The newcomer, Olivier Latry, is recorded on the magnificent beast of an organ at Notre-Dame (a Cavaillé-Coll instrument like Messiaen’s own). Against this are Jennifer Bate’s legendary accounts, licensed by Regis from Unicorn-Kanchana, remastered and gathered together into one spectacularly cheap box (is there any hope that the same can be done for another jewel in Unicorn’s catalogue, Peter Hill’s accounts of Messiaen’s piano works?). Latry has the benefit of three posthumously published pieces, while Bate has the composer’s glowing praise and, in the late Livre du Saint Sacrement, the use of his instrument.

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For the most part Latry is very good indeed, complementing rather than matching Bate. ‘Dieu parmi nous’ might sound sluggish to some ears, but rarely is it captured with such clarity, while the wealth of colour available from the vast Notre Dame organ is most apparent in the quirkier moments of Livre d’orgue. Where Latry disappoints is in the final epic cycle, Livre du Saint Sacrement. He lacks a sense of space, chopping nearly half an hour off Bate’s performance. Latry’s breezy way with plainchant passages, where Bate admittedly has her longueurs, is fine, and if his approach to ‘La Resurrection du Christ’ lacks the impelling grandiosity of this cataclysmic event, it is arguably driven by an insatiable upward dynamism. However, nothing can justify his peremptory saunter through the ‘Prière après le communion’.

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It is clear that Latry’s set was conceived as a whole from the thought that evidently has been given to the ordering of works. A simple example is L’ascension being followed by Messe de la Pentecôte on disc three: works occupying radically different compositional worlds, but making a direct progression in terms of subject matter. Latry’s is a magnificent achievement, making this a set to relish, but Bate’s performances remain essential.