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Olivier Messiaen: The Complete Organ Works

Messiaen Quote

These new volumes are a new re-release starting in October 2002 by Priory Records Ltd. of Gillian Weir's ledgendary recordings of Messiaen at Århus Cathedral in Denmark. This release marks the 10th anniversary of Messiaen's passing. The organ works are offered as five individual CDs, with the fifth one being a double-CD set, making a total of 6 CDs. The new series has been digitally re-mastered for even better sound than the original! The original series has been expanded to include three works published posthumously, making it fully complete. These three new additional works were recently recorded for this re-release series on the same organ at Århus Cathedral are Prélude, Monodie, and Offrande au Saint Sacrement.

This disc also contains an exceptional 30-page booklet that is becoming a notable hallmark of each disc in this series:

  • Notes by the player herself, recognised as a Messiaen authority throughout the world, writer on his organ music in Faber's The Messiaen Companion, and and able to give unique insights into the way a performer thinks about the music;
  • Reproductions of original paintings by Mark Rowan-Hull who is famous for translating into visual terms his vision of the organ music of Messiaen;
  • Articles by distinguished scientists from Oxford and London Universities on the latest research into synaesthesia;
  • Stoplists of the Århus organ as well as La Trinité, with descriptions of Messiaen's experiences and changes he desired on that instrument;
  • List of organ works, when and if they were published and performed;
  • Timeline of important milestones in Messiaen's life.

Dame Gillian Weir's Landmark Messiaen Still Tops the Polls

Ben Rayfield

Dame Gillian Weir's landmark recordings of the complete organ works of Olivier Messiaen (Priory PRCD921/26), first released in 1994, are still acclaimed as the finest performances of Messiaen's organ music committed to disc. The Gramophone (July 08) hails "the superlative Weir" as its must-have essential recording of the complete works alongside that of Messiaen himself. BBC Radio 3's Building A Library (31 May) hails her La Nativité du Seigneur (Priory PRCD921) as its first choice recommendation of the work; Jeremy Thurlow, comparing all available recordings, comments: "From the dazzling range of colours she produces, you can hear exactly why she chose the magnificent Frobenius organ at Aarhus Cathedral. Every movement is full of intensity, and when you hear her playing you can really feel the music bubbling over with an irrespresible sense of joy".

Gillian Weir's ongoing contribution to the Messiaen centenary celebrations make for a busy year, with participation in the International Messiaen conference in Birmingham, Montreal's Messiaen Festival and Competition, and Messiaen recitals at Stanford University, Durham Cathedral and Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, Music at Oxford in Christ Church Cathedral, and many others.

Gillian Weir is delighted to have been invited to open the Westminster Abbey Organ Festival as part of the South Bank Centre's Messiaen Festival(external link) with a performance on July 15 2008 of Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité, selected by The Gramophone as one of July's best events worldwide.

Overall Reviews of the Priory Release

The great writer on music Alex Ross, famous especially for his superb book The Rest is Noise, wrote “The Messiaen fesetival at the University of Chicago kicked off last night with the great British organist Gillian Weir performing Messe de la Pentecôte, among other works. When I reviewed a great pile of Messiaen organ discs for Fanfare magazine some years ago, I came to the conclusion that Weir's cycle, originally issued on Collins Classics and now available from Priory Records, reigned supreme.”

“Her complete Messiaen cycle for instance has, for my money, never been bettered.”
Chris Bragg, February 2006 Musicweb

“Dame Gillian Weir's wide-ranging concert repertoire encompasses the early Renaissance to the new premieres of contemporary music scores. She has made numerous organ recordings chronicling her adventuresome journey with this repertoire. The music of Olivier Messiaen, however, helped launch Weir's career as an international concert artist. Her acquaintance with his music began in her college days at the Royal College of Music in London, where, still a relative newcomer to the organ herself, she performed Messiaen's Combat de la Mort et de la Vie from Les Corps Glorieux as a competitor in the St. Albans International Organ Festival in 1964. The international jury and audience members were transfixed, the jury awarded Weir first prize, and her career as an international organ concert artist soon followed.

Many other organists and concert audiences found Messiaen's music difficult to comprehend, however. The immediate connection that Weir felt to his music and her friendship With Messiaen has blessed her with personal insights into his music, which she has in tum shared with audiences throughout the world in concert, lecture, and masterclass. Weir recorded what was then the complete Messiaen organ works in 1979 on the M. P. Möller organ at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which was, incidentally, one of Messiaen's favorite organs. In 1988, Messiaen encouraged Weir to re-record his complete works on CD, which included the recently composed Livre du Saint Sacrement, premiered at the American Guild of Organists 1986 convention in Detroit. Weir recorded Messiaen's organ music on compact disc in 1994, which was released on the Collins Classics label and garnered many prizes, awards, and compliments from organists and musicians the world over. Though the Collins label dIsappeared and the recordings went out of print, Weir's complete Messiaen cycle was reissued on the Priory label in 2002. This recording, Volume 1, features three early organ works of Messiaen, which were composed in late 1920s and 1930s: Apparition de l'Eglise Etemelle, La Nativite du Seigneur (complete), and Le Banquet Celeste.

Weir's choice of organ for her Messiaen cycle is interesting and provocative. Her copious and engaging liner notes remind the listener that although Messiaen presided over the 1858 Cavaillé-Coll organ at l'Eglise de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris for over sixty years, and that most of his organ music was created on this particular organ, "he was by no means wedded to the sound of this one organ." Theophil M. Otto's fascinating article "Messiaen and the Baroque Organ," which was published in the September 1978 issue of Music/The AGO-RCCO Magazine, confirms this and relates Almut Rössler's experiences with Messiaen on the 1954 Rudolf von Beckerath organ at the Johanniskirche in Dusseldorf, Germany.

In the liner notes, Weir describes the primary characteristics that Messiaen deemed necessary for an organ to effectively portray his organ music. The first of these is power (the organ should be able to overwhelm the listener), clarity, color (exhibited by a variety of mutation stops), and finally, in Weir's words, "the ringing French reeds, bursting forth from a Swell box or, in the Pedal, magnificently underpinning the whole structure." Weir's search for an organ that possessed these qualities ended surprisingly not in France, but in Denmark, at the Domkirche in Århus, which possesses an organ built by the Danish company Th. Frobenius and Sons (Lyngby) in 1928, with further expansion and selective revoicing carried out by this same builder three different times. The organ currently comprises 89 stops and was the largest organ in Denmark for many years until 1995, when the large Marcussen organ at the Domkirche in Copenhagen unseated it. The Århus organ will become the third largest organ in Denmark in 2008, when a new 91-stop J. L. van den Heuvel Orgelbouw is installed in a 2,000-seat concert hall that will be found in the new DR-BYEN (Danish Radio and TV) complex in Copenhagen.

One might find Weir's choice of a Frobenius organ slightly surprising, but a few minutes' listening allays any fears of a mismatch between organ and music. All of the requirements for a Messiaen organ are met. The organ has plenty of power, all of the reed stops were imported from France; mutations are plentiful (in this organ they are available on all divisions), creating a diverse variety of color. Clarity is also evident on the recording, whether due to microphone placement, acoustics, or both, but the recording has instilled within this reviewer a strong desire to hear this organ in person.

Apparition de l'Eglise Eternelle serves as a very effective work with which to open this recording. Its subtle, yet intense beginning, acheived with the full Svelleværk division with the expression pedal closed, builds as the swell box gradually opens, manuals are changed, and stops are added as a magnificent vision of a church gradually comes to view. The climax, which symbolizes the listener's beholding of the church in magnificent splendor in full view, is absolutely riveting. This reviewer was awestruck by the sheer power and grandeur of the Pedal 32' Kontrafagot, which, full of fundamental and visceral force, delivers thundering hammer-like blows on octave low-C notes that remind the listener of the sheer force it takes to symbolically build the church in the piece. The work ends as effectively as it began, with the church ever so slowly disappearing from view, and before the listener knows it, the vision has all but disappeared, as the foundation stops of the Svelleværk fade into oblivion. Weir's performance of this work, coupled with this organ, is by itself worth the price of this recording.

Weir then traverses the entire La Nativite du Seigneur cycle with authority and grace- the work receives a positively superb reading. Weir exploits virtually every possible color of the Frobenius organ to fine effect. Each of these nine movements portrays a variety of moods and emotions- from the meditative celestes and flutes of Desseins Eternels to the folklike charm of Les Bergers to the blaze of color and glory of Dieu parmi nous, which is both scintillating and hairraising. Weir not only succeeds in playing each work with musicality and admirable technical prowess, but effectively weds the music to its religious context. The album closes with Messiaen's first published work, Le Banquet Celeste, as Weir delicately traverses the timeless harmonies and water drops witll the utmost sensitivity.

The liner notes that accompany the recording are simply stunning- so complete and informative. Weir is as gifted a writer as she is an organist and gives detailed and knowledgeable information about each of the works on the recording. In addition to the notes about this recording, the CD offers several bonus materials in the notes. A fantastic reprint of Weir's article "En Souvenir ... Olivier Messiaen 1908-1992" that she wrote for The Organists' Review is also included, detailing Weir's many interactions with and information about Messiaen himself. Weir's article on the Frobenius organ used for the recording is also interesting, and Jean-Louis Coignet, Expert-organier of the City of Paris and Technicienconseil for historic organs at the French Ministry of Culture, provides an interesting history of the Cavaillé-Coll organ in l'Eglise de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris. A most helpful catalogue of Messiaen's organ works follows, which is followed by an even more detailed record of significant dates in Messiaen's life. Vincent Walsh's article on synaesthesia is a masterpiece. This is a masterful recording in every way. Do purchase it.”
David Pickering, Graceland University , July 2008 The Diapason

Overall Reviews of the Original Collins Classics Release

"Weir's virtuosity and technical control are staggering. She conveys unshakeable conviction and certainty throughout [in] totally gripping performances. An achievement of outstanding musical integrity." Gramophone (1995 Instrumental Award nomination)

"This is a Messiaen cycle that should now enter the shelves of every devotee of his music." BBC Music Magazine (Best CDs of 1994)

"This issue ranks among the supreme achievements in the entire field of instrumental recording." The Organ

"This intégrale is a worthy successor to [that by] Messiaen himself." Le Monde (France)

"An absolute triumph. Gillian Weir's authenticity of performance is beyond challenge. This release represents one of the major recording triumphs of the century." In Tune

"Gillian Weir's matchless Messiaen... a landmark in the history of recorded sound." Organist's Review

"This is a magnificent achievement. I doubt if Collins has ever issued a more important recording than this." CD Review (A 'Pick of the Year')

"One of the most impressive instrumental recording projects I have ever encountered." Independent on Sunday

"There is no finer introduction to Messiaen's unique soundworld in the present catalogue." Mitchell Beazley Guide (Best Organ Recording of 1996)

"Quite simply, it is a masterpiece." The Diapason

"A towering achievement." Pipedreams

"Superlative Playing" Fono Forum (Germany)

"C'est magnifique!" Yvonne Loriod Messiaen