...a seven-and-a-half hour journey through the life, works and Catholic faith of the...
Andrew McGregor 2002
Bach and Messiaen are the two most important composers for the king of instruments. If you think of Bach's greatest organ works as constructing a cathedral of sound, then Messiaen's masterpieces are the stained glass in the cathedral, catching, changing and transforming light as it enters the sacred space - illuminating the interior, sending the spirit soaring beyond the confines of the stone.
"The stained-glass windows magnify the light, one of God's first creations, but the organ brings to the church something similar to light that yet surpasses it: the music of the Invisible. It is the wondrous overture to the Beyond..."
Messiaen's own words, and his ambassador here, Olivier Latry (the organist of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris) agrees, telling us that Messiaen's image reaches its fullest realisation in this cathedral, with the magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ on the west wall, halfway between heaven and earth, and the huge medieval rose window just above it. Add Messiaen's organ music, says Latry, and the cathedral resounds with the meeting between the music, the instrument, and what he calls 'its jewel-case of stone'.
You can hear what he means; the atmosphere has been caught as well as the instrument, and we're invited to take a seven-and-a-half hour journey through the life, works and Catholic faith of the 20th century's greatest composer for organ, beginning with Le banquet céleste - written when Messiaen was a 19-year old student, spending the summer on his aunt's farm - to his last great organ cycle over half a century later: Livre du Saint Sacrement.
There's sometimes a degree of spiritual nervousness about approaching Messiaen's music; do you need to share his all-consuming faith to fully appreciate his art? Well, no...it's actually possible simply to revel in the extraordinary sounds he makes, his intimate understanding of the instrument he wrote for and the colours and textures he could draw from it.
But...how much more you get from the music when you know the foundations: the faith, the rituals, the plainchant (and the birdsong!), most of all Messiaen's sixty-year commitment to his post of parish organist at Saint-Trinité in Paris, a proper working organist's job (albeit with the fringe benefit of one of the finest Cavaillé-Coll organs known to man).
The sleeve notes are enormously helpful here, and they echo the spirit of this whole project: respect and commitment, exactly the same qualities Messiaen showed in his music, and his faith. Plus of course that all-important touch of inspiration, which makes this canon of work extraordinary, and also lifts some of Latry's performances, particularly of the large-scale works such as the Messe de la Pentecôte, into a special category.
Occasionally it feels as though respect wins over excitement; some of the biggest opportunities for exuberance and exhilaration are reined in just when you want Latry to give the instrument its head and allow all those glorious colours to explode into the huge space of Notre Dame...but that's more than compensated for by his intuitive understanding of Messiaen's world, a world which in large part he shares.