2008 Messiaen Centennial Concerts

29th May 2008 From the Liverpool Daily Post:

Dame Gillian's performance was, as always, utterly impeccable. She made the cathdral organ speak. From crashing dissoance to sublimely restful, introspective, quiet moments, Messiaen has to be one of the most cerebral composers. This performance brought all the excellence of that supreme musical mind to the fore. Dame Gillian's return is keenly awaited."

13th June 2008 From the Westdeutscher Zeitung (Wuppertal):

The full potential of the powerful Stadthallen organ is only really revealed in the performance of a true master. In the final concert of the "Organ Accent" series this master was found: Gillian Weir captivated from the first to the last moment of her performance, transporting even the inexperienced listener on a journey of musical discovery.

10th July 2008 from the Hereford Times:

Limitless artistry

The second of Hereford Cathedral's Gala Organ Concerts was given on Tuesday evening by the world-renowned organist Dame Gillian Weir.

Without question it ranked among the greatest performances I have ever experienced in a long career. The unconventional programme was intriguing. It opened with William Matthias's virtuosic Variations on a Welsh Hymn Tune, after which Dame Gillian enthralled us with engaging works by Sweelinck, Liszt, Messiaen, Duruflé, Widor and Eben. Most enchanting was probably Messaien's Chants d'oiseaux, in which the massive Willis instrument was transformed into a veritable aviary of delicate twitterings, cacklings and boomings. Most brilliant was the staggering bravura of the Moto Ostinato and Finale from Czech composer Petr Eben's Sunday Music which ended the recital.

Dame Gillian's achievement was technically staggering. I don't know what the equivalent of finger legato is when referring to the feet or to shifting from manual to manual, but the way she applied it was miraculous. The range of colours was spectacular and the subtle transitions between them magical. Never before have I heard an organ recital come close to sounding like this. And that is only the technical aspects. Musically it was exemplary. Where required her performance was tender, dramatic, soothing and hair-raising.

At the end of her engaging pre-concert interview with fellow recitalist in the series Peter Dyke, someone asked Dame Gillian whether the organ's mechanical nature allows musical expression. Her verbal answer was gracious: it's all in the phrasing. Her musical answer was an emphatic demonstration of limitless artistry. John Rushby-Smith

17th July 2008 from Telegraph.co.uk:

Classical review: Gillian Weir plays Messiaen

Ivan Hewett reviews organist Gillian Weir at Westminster Abbey

Can one have too much of the music of Olivier Messiaen? Yes, yes, say many of my musical friends, clutching their heads at the thought of all those deafening gongs and brass, those twittering bird-songs and those soupy harmonies.

The prospect of a whole year of Messiaen celebrations, promoted by the South Bank Centre to celebrate the great man’s centenary did not fill them with joy, and I was dubious myself. But as it’s turned out, joy is exactly what the series has brought me – including the joy of discovery.

This has been especially true of the organ recitals, even more so the ones given over to the little-known later works of the Fifties and Sixties. Dame Gillian Weir, doyenne of British organists, played one of these at Westminster Abbey.

This was the Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, a series of nine pieces interspersed by plainsong sung by four of the abbey’s male singers. It’s a long listen at around 80 minutes, and the seats in the abbey are not kind to the human frame.

But everyone was entranced, sitting stock-still while the evening sunshine slowly wheeled around the abbey’s high arches.

What was so entrancing was the combination of naivety and sophistication. In one piece, Messiaen spells out sacred words in a musical code in the organist’s left hand, while the right hand lets forth a cascade of birdsong. In another he represents God’s simplicity by having the hands move towards each other, like a fan folding.

Often, the organist repeated the plainchant melody we’d just heard from the choir, harmonised with massive dissonances and which suddenly melted into a pure major chord.

Dame Gillian knows this piece better than anybody, having given the British premiere in 1972 from the composer’s manuscript.

Messiaen thought of music as a cascade of colour, and finding equivalents for the sound of his own Paris organ on the very different abbey organ, is half the battle in bringing his music to life.

Gillian Weir has a genius for this; but she can also play plainchant in such a way that it seems to speak as well as sing, and she makes Messiaen’s tangled counterpoint brilliantly clear.

The way she moulded the closing bars of the sublime eighth movement made us feel, just for a moment, that the music really was giving a glimpse of the hereafter.

22nd May 2008 From the Daily Info, Oxford:

Gillian Weir played an inspired programme of Bach and Messiaen in Saturday's concert in Christ Church Cathedral. It's the 100th anniversary of Messiaen's birth, so probably a busy year for Weir, the doyenne of Messiaen's organ works. It's quite a coup for Music At Oxford to have staged this bold concert, in the strangely intimate setting of one of the smallest cathe drals in the country.

Bach and Messiaen may seem odd bedfellows, but the partnership works. Movements from Messiaen's Messe de la Pentecôte alternate with 21 Chorale Preludes based on Lutheran hymn tunes, from Bach's Clavier-Ubung. The depth of expression in each match beautifully, and Weir seems perfectly at home playing both genres, needing as little time to clear her musical palate as the audience do. With no applause between movements the atmosphere was austere and tense, emphasising the religious nature of the evening.

Highlights included Les Oiseaux et les Sources, with the detail of real bird song. Apparently Messiaen could sometimes be seen creeping about in parks with a notebook, to capture birdsong before taperecorders. This piece perhaps illustrates the differences between the composers - Bach formal, Lutheran, expressing an emotional response to his religion, Messiaen free, Catholic, seeking to explain the incomprehensible, and using the fine detail of the familiar to lead his listeners to the unfamiliar and mysterious. They are linked by their passion, their religion and the musical timeline. Messaien plays with structure, referencing plainsong and Hindu rhythms as well as natural sounds, in the way that modern poets can hint at the formal structures of classical poetry, without being bound by them. If Bach is John Donne, then Messiaen might be TS Eliot, flitting from one structure to another. Essentially t he pairing of Bach and Messiaen steers us from the familiar to the unfamiliar much as Messiaen within Liturgy would seem, or as Messiaen does within his own music - we can enjoy his wilder passages knowing that resolution will come.

The concert rose to a crescendo, with Messiaen's Le Vent de l'Esprit (The Wind of the Spirit) which tore through the Cathedral with trademark power and resplendent discords. Finally Bach's Komm Gott, Schöpfer felt like the voluntary to the concert, leaving the audience refreshed and resulting in enormous applause. Some of the audience watched Weir on a videolink, showing her fingers, and occasionally her feet darting about. Personally I felt it was unnecessary - you can hear how nimble she is - but it did provide another dimension to the evening. And when you have someone as fabulous as Gillian Weir visiting you do want to soak up as much of the evening as you can.

Jen Pawsey

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