Messiaen: Méditations Sur Le Mystère De La Sainte Trinité (ECM New Series 1494)

 

Olivier Messiaen
Méditations Sur Le Mystère De La Sainte Trinité

Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Recorded June 1992, Hofkirche, Luzerne
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Music: breathing of statues. Perhaps:
silence of paintings. You language where all language
ends. You time
standing vertically on the motion of mortal hearts.
–Rainer Maria Rilke, “To Music”

Composer, teacher, and ornithologist were just a few of the roles adopted by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) in his lifetime. Yet it was as organist that he seems to have felt most at ease. Messiaen carved his own niche through an increasingly “linguistic” approach to the instrument, such that every piece became another entry in a catalog of semantic impressions. In his 1969 Méditations Sur Le Mystère De La Sainte Trinité (Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity), Messiaen inaugurated a technique he termed “communicable language,” whereby full statements—in this case, culled from the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas—were directly encoded into music. Messiaen was also synaesthetic (that is, he attributed colors to specific notes) and used this ability to paint audible pictures that perhaps found traction on his mental canvas alone. The mechanics of this 75-minute work have therefore been the subject of much debate around the issue of comprehensibility—i.e., whether or not the invisibility of its sonic messages undermines the intent thereof. In spite of the detailed paratext in which the work is couched, we are left with a daunting tangle of musical narrative to tease apart.

Divided into nine parts, Méditations acts as a mosaic of psycho-spiritual tropes and their representative forms. Messiaen gives his own commentary for each, summarized as follows:

I. the mystery of the begotten
II. birds and garden
III. one’s relationship not only with God, but in God
IV. “He is”
V. color; God as Father
VI. the Word; the light of humanity
VII. communicable language
VIII. divine attributes; a desire for wings
IX. “I am that I am;” garlands

Every moment feels played rather than composed, and Christopher Bowers-Broadbent captures the music’s spontaneous qualities with delicacy and tasteful drama. Turbulent chords speak of inner turmoil while “thinner” threads (such as can be found in Part II) constitute an altogether different strand. Some especially turbulent turns of phrase (Part IV) speak of an openness to one’s struggle with the idea of perfection. More protracted ruminations like Part V stretch the limits of their mortality, almost slipping from the page in the process. Part VI ends with a noticeably massive statement. Like a heavy metal power chord, it cuts to our core, shaking the ribcage and its resident heart. The final passages of Part VIII are some of the most beautiful to be found. Part IX is the galaxy on a pinhead, tearing through the cosmos with the air of one possessed, concluding with the song of the yellowhammer (a bird native to Europe and Asia).

These are about as far as one can get from Sunday morning hymns, though they are no less inspiring in their solitary way. Like the leviathan nature of transgression, the whole of this music spills over into destructive territories, all the while maintaining its central integrity. Messiaen’s is a world concerned with negative space, a world where the body fragments through music, filling worship with its own ceremony. So much of the music we associate with the cathedral is consonant beyond reproach, bringing out challenging harmonic relationships selectively and for italic effect. But here, we find the opposite: a multi-dimensional universe that turns in on itself, finding new paths in the miniscule, where human breath is mediated through an instrumental force so great that is must be bound to a single performer. With every pull of a stop, every change in register, we are brought into the aphasia of inspiration.

One cannot rightly imprison this work under one label. It is by turns magisterial and vulnerable. In showing us as much, Messiaen seems to remind us that apocalypse has nothing to do with fire and brimstone, but everything to do with knowing that creation cannot sustain itself without death. Thus does every gesture indicate an organic structure, every textual cluster a new chemical compound to be savored upon the aural tongue. The organ provides both composer and performer with a vocabulary in which crushing shouts and ethereal whispers play an equal part. It is an actionist approach to music, one in which pathos is dismantled and thrown at our feet in a heaping pile of meticulously crafted ecstasy. And wherever ecstasy reigns, so too do its attendant vices, each more melodically compelling than the last.

Pragmatically speaking, this is nothing more than an album of long meandering organ works that may turn off more listeners than it captivates. There would seem to be no thematic continuity, except for perhaps its rootedness in the sacred. Yet a dive into its fractured world yields a trove of sunken virtues. Messiaen has fearlessly plumbed the depths of his own misgivings, leaving us with a temperamental portrait of the Christian life. Gone are the universal(ized) gestures of Bach, the finely cast nests of Vierne, the porous processions of Reger, the playful romps of Karg-Elert. Here is an organ aware of its own body, as fleeting as those who wring from its innards the cacophony of our unrequited desires.

Upon listening to this album, I am left asking myself: What is a meditation? Is it an abandonment of one’s immediate reality? A total commitment to the psycho-spiritual path? For many, it requires silence, a total lack of physical disturbance, and absolute clarity of mind, while others see it as a challenge to aspire to in the midst of all distractions. For Messiaen, it would seem to be a willingness to complicate one’s faith in a reductive world.

Arvo Pärt: Miserere (ECM New Series 1430)

Miserere

Arvo Pärt
Miserere

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Paul Hillier director
Orchester der Beethovenhalle Bonn
Western Wind Chamber Choir
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Sarah Leonard soprano
Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Pierre Favre percussion
Recorded September 1990, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London (Miserere, Sarah Was Ninety Years Old)
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Recorded December 1990 at Beethovenhalle, Bonn (Festina Lente)
Engineers: Peter Laenger and Andreas Neubronner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

For reasons perhaps too numerous to list here in full, Arvo Pärt’s Miserere remains my most cherished of the Estonian composer’s ever-growing book of masterworks. Suffice it to say that its magic lies in its stillness. For such an expansive piece—scored as it is for choir, soloists, organ, and ensemble—it is remarkably introspective. Its opening invocation of Psalm 51 fleshes out a corpus of spoken language made melody. A statement from the clarinet follows every word, not so much commentative as dialogic. Once harmony is introduced in the second vocal line, the pauses become even more gravid and rich in spatial detail. The soloists gather up all remaining threads, persevering through mounting tensions with the blunt instrument that is the interjected “Dies irae.” This is more than just a thunderous meditation. It is a wringing-out of the heavens, the earth a mouth gaping to catch all that drips down. Voices burst like supernovas around thunderous timpani, crashing into the oceans until only a tubular bell is left to caress the newly razed soil. The heartfelt baritone of Gordon Jones describes the ruins with mellifluous sensitivity. A wind section breathes through every pause like a ghostly antiphon and provides a dark interlude. As the soloists arise en masse, David James flares with his resplendent countertenor colors, whereas the deep intonation of soprano Sarah Leonard marvels amid the fumes of destruction. Another stunning interlude, this time introduced by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent on organ, coaxes the winds into more independent recitations, accentuated by a crystalline tambourine and triangle. We arrive to an a cappella passage that is transfiguration incarnate, each soloist pawing the air like a sleeping lion. The winds slog through the valleys, heavy sins in tow, while voices linger in the firmament. Leonard is unmatched in her ability to put her entire being into a high note, and the moment one finds at the 30:13 mark is perhaps her finest example. This touches off one of the most breathtaking lifts ever set to music, as all the voices scale a ladder of chaos into a world of silent order. Miserere is all about the “in between,” the lesson of interrupted thought, and our fearful awe over the mystery of creation.

Festina Lente (1988) for orchestra and harp is dedicated to Manfred Eicher. The title means “make haste slowly” and acknowledges the importance of flux in any creative endeavor. Like Eicher’s own aesthetic path, it is a resonant spiral that goes both downward and upward.

Awe is the operative concept in Sarah Was Ninety Years Old (1977/90). Drums cycle through an arithmetic exploration of high and low beats, cradling wordless passages from tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and John Potter. This process repeats until the organ makes its humble entrance, even as Leonard pushes her voice to dizzying heights. One would think such a piece might escape today’s trigger-happy musical culture, but I have recently encountered the drums from Sarah, as effective as they are surprising, being sampled by German electronic artist HECQ in his track “Aback,” off the wonderful album Night Falls.

This disc has been with me for nearly half my life. The Miserere in particular drew me into a love of singing. As a teenager I used to spend hours singing along alternately with the baritone and alto lines until the booklet yellowed and nearly fell apart from excessive handling (I even went so far as to purchase a backup, just so I would have a pristine copy on my shelf). After so much physiological engagement with its textual and aural shapes, it has become an integral part of my person. Listening reminds me that with each new step I take on the path to independence, I grow closer to who I have always been: a human soul sustained by all others in a world where time is infinitely malleable, and the only thing that’s real is my surrender to the moment.

Christopher Bowers-Broadbent: Trivium (ECM New Series 1431)

 

Trivium

Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Recorded October 1990, Grossmünster, Zürich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

I am a rider without mount, an ocean without waves, a horizon without dawn, nailed to myself, nailed to an absence in time which, after me, becomes the time of absence.
–Edmond Jabés, The Book of Questions

Avid Arvo Pärt listeners will be more than familiar with the profound talents of Christopher Bowers-Broadbent. The English organist has long held contemporary music in high regard, and has enriched the liturgical landscape with numerous commissions as well as his own compositions. With such a wealth of music available at the tips of his fingers (and toes), Bowers-Broadbent was faced with a daunting task: namely, crafting a personal take on music’s creative intimacy through one of its most leviathan instruments. The end result is, in his own words, a “performance about time and space.” As such, the reach, not the fleeting emotional effect, of his selections becomes paramount. Rather than lay out a program of short, varied pieces, he has turned inward, finding in the works of only three composers enough to describe a universe of ideas.

He first unveils the night sky with a quartet of pieces by Arvo Pärt. Trivium (1988) is like a constellation burning silently for our scrutiny. What remains flat on the stargazer’s map becomes three-dimensional in Bowers-Broadbent’s care. As with Pärt’s other tintinnabular quests, Trivium is both explorer and the landscape being explored. Its powerful middle section connotes a triune infrastructure, embodying the balance of divine order in every disturbance. The steady pulse of Mein Weg hat Gipfel und Wellentäler (1989) breathes with earthly lungs, even as it cradles a heart that can only be seen with a telescope. Its path stays true to the peaks and valleys of its title, taken from a poem by Edmond Jabés (Pärt would later rescore this piece in a version for strings and percussion that can be found on the ECM recording In Principio). Annum per annum (1980) is structured like a mass and brings that same sort of complementary vision to its stark dynamic contrasts. Pari Intervallo, composed in 1981, layers intonations in the higher register over a slow chromatic sway of transfiguration.

We are slowly brought back into our bodies with two of three voluntaries composed by Peter Maxwell Davies in 1976. These arrangements of sixteenth-century Scottish hymns seem to unpack, in a brief span of time, the mystery of faith. With enigmatic precision, Psalm 124 (after David Peebles) traces the contours of God’s raging waters with a touch of resignation, glorying in the safety of grace and retribution, while O God Abufe (after John Fethy) expresses even more succinctly the awe of a prayerful mind.

By the time we arrive at the final two pieces, each a spectacular arrangement of music by Philip Glass, we are well primed for the metamorphoses implied therein. Satyagraha renders the finale of Act III from the selfsame opera into a whirling dervish of stratospheric proportions. One can almost feel the air coursing through the organ’s pipes with every recapitulation. Dance IV, on the other hand, is a more extroverted piece that populates its periphery with movement and attractive forces. It ecstatically forms the center of the album’s galactic structure, drawing in countless voices until it reaches critical mass.

Bowers-Broadbent has the uncanny ability to take music that is seemingly histrionic and forge from it a host of instinctual meanings. From the wafting strains of Pärt’s sublime prostrations to the enlivening regularity of Glass’s exuberant leaps, we are treated at every moment to an august evocation of music for its own sake. All too often, it seems, organ recitals fall under our radar. Albums like this become the radar, and we the blips upon its screen: transient yet unmistakably there.

Sarah Leonard/Christopher Bowers-Broadbent: Górecki/Satie/Milhaud/Bryars (ECM New Series 1495)

 

Górecki/Satie/Milhaud/Bryars

Sarah Leonard soprano
Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Recorded June 1992, Hofkirche Luzern
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Not many record labels would produce, let alone conceive of, an album consisting mainly of works for soprano and organ. I am glad to say that ECM did not back away from such a challenge, and in the process left one of its most indelible musical marks on the classical landscape. Of the four composers represented here Bryars is the only ECM mainstay, but he is in fine company indeed.

Henryk Górecki’s O Domina Nostra (1982-1985/90), conceived as an apostrophe to the Black Madonna of Jasna Góra, emerges from and recedes into a profound stasis. An earthly low pedal D on the organ is paired with triads descending from the cosmos, leaving us caught in the middle. Our only guide is the bare text and the voice that articulates it:

O Domina nostra
Claromontana
Victoriosa
Regina nostra Maria
Sancta Maria ora pro nobis

Oh, our Lady
Of the Bright Mount,
Victorious
Our Queen, Mary
Holy Mary, pray for us

Amid this murky swirl a soprano scours her lowest range, trying to pull herself from the depths of some unnamable crisis. She proclaims her joy in faith, as if each new utterance might touch a hope that its predecessors failed to reach. She returns to the opening invocation, closing on a supplicative “O Domina.”

The epic Messe des Pauvres (1895), or Mass for the Poor, by Erik Satie is, like much of the composer’s paradoxical output, both representative of the eclecticism for which he is known and something of an anomaly. According to Wilfrid Mellers’s liner notes, early on in his compositional career Satie “sought to reintegrate the disintegrated materials of tradition by juxtaposing fragments of melody and chord-sequences without obvious relation to one another or to development.” Thus do we get the Messes des Pauvres, a piece rooted in plainchant, sans the theological overload such a comparison might imply. Normally the organ is accompanied by unison voices, but forgoes them here. The piece rarely lingers, as if the four limbs required of its performance were seeking a point of unity through which to gain access to something far more mystical. Yet the piece also questions the mystical, and with a levity that indulges our skepticism. The music is wrought with such beautiful indecisiveness that moments of resolution seem intrusive. Only when the organ bares its teeth midway through is the power of this indecision fully realized. The heavy feet of an overarching sarcastic glory trample even the fluted reverie that follows.

The diptych of miniatures that is Darius Milhaud’s Prélude I/II (1942) is charmingly rustic and prepares us for the masterpiece that awaits us. The lead melodies are like the ramblings of shepherds, whose carefree desires can only go so far before the flock disperses beyond containment. The rhythms move like a human figure, as graceful as they are imperfect.

Which brings us to this album’s pièce de résistance: Gavin Bryars’s The Black River (1991). The text, culled from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, is told from the viewpoint of Professor Aronnax as he describes the many underwater life forms that escort the mighty Nautilus through a vast underwater current from which the piece gets its name. Bryars successfully makes of this passage a world unto itself, one not subterranean but submerged. A languid introduction from the organ opens our ears to the soprano’s entrance as she propels herself through a subdued tour de force of intonation, melody, and atmosphere. The melody sustains itself through a constantly shifting mosaic of moods, in which recapitulation is found only in the organ at the end.

Sarah Leonard sings with rare beauty, and her rich voice is laced with a nasal quality that burrows into the very marrow of the listener’s bones. Her high note in The Black River sends shivers down the spine (and do keep an ear out for the haunting overtone she unwittingly produces at the 13:18 mark in the same piece). Christopher Bowers-Broadbent is the perfect foil, eliciting from the organ a delicacy I have heard nowhere else. This will always be one of my most beloved New Series recordings.