Sunday, May 20, 2007

Radical beauty

I rarely review organ CDs on the blog — or, indeed, anywhere. There are several good reasons why. Organ music isn’t popular. It is exclusively classical, and classical music isn’t popular among you — by which I mean readers of blogs. Classical music CDs are rarely truly superb enough for me to try to interest classical–sceptic readers in any but the best of them.

These CDs, Messiaen’s complete organ works, played by Olivier Latry in Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, count among the best. A small but significant number of organ CDs suffer from one of two problems: the playing is not good enough to prevent the sound of the organ being the main attraction, or the playing is excellent and the music is the centre of attention, but there is a problem with the organ, or recording, or both.

Here, the organ is wonderful. Notre-Dame’s instrument has thousands upon thousands of pipes within it, able to produce delicate, silvery tinkling, savage snarls, ethereal whispers, firm harmonies, shudders of the air around you, searing single notes like the primal idea of the note itself, heartbreakingly beautiful and hovering flute solos... the list goes on.

The musician is as expert, musical, restrained, soulful and daring on the organ as Keith Jarrett is on jazz piano, Stephen Hough on classical piano, Steve Vai on electric guitar, Jan Garbarek on saxophone. At no point does he show off. At every point the music comes first. And always there is a sense that he is serenely capable of astounding miracles which would set the world on its ear, but chooses not to employ them because we’d all explode into atomic particles if he did, and he just wants us to enjoy the music instead.

Yes, my tongue was in my cheek in that last sentence, but only a bit. Messiaen’s music is very difficult to get your hands around, and sometimes to get your eyes around on the page. It specifically calls for masses of colour in terms of the sounds available (and since Messiaen suffered from synaesthesia, it has more significance than just a gimmick). It is filled with bizarre rhythms from other countries and other times. It can be soothing or serene or emphatic or happy or frightening. His music demands your attention. From the sleeve notes:

The religious topics he chose to write about all bear on a theme particularly suited to music, that of contact between the everyday and the eternal. Though he was a christian, he was no means writing just for his own church. As Messiaen went on, he drew more and more into his music the songs of birds and the rhythms of medieval India, modern serialism and the sounds of wind or water. The "church" for which he was writing became the world.

Have a listen here to some samples by clicking ‘Track Listing’ on the left. And then go buy for a very reasonable price from some online store or other.

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