From the Canyons to the Stars: The Music of Olivier Messiaen – Les Corps Glorieux

Les Corps Glorieux
Suite, Op.5

Thomas Trotter (organ)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 27 November, 2008
Venue: The Grand Organ, St Paul's Cathedral, London

Thomas TrotterThe centenary of Olivier Messiaen’s birth coinciding with the rededication of the Grand Organ of St Paul’s Cathedral: what better way to commemorate the latter than with a performance of the former’s second great organ cycle? Les Corps Glorieux (1939) finds Messiaen excising the last remnants of the French organ tradition as are still evident in La Nativité du Seigneur in this inclusive overview of his harmonic and rhythmic innovations up until that point, though one which is still underpinned by religious imagery – as the subtitle ‘Seven short Visions of the Life of the Resurrected’ makes plain.

The order and balance of the seven movements makes it among Messiaen’s most poised conceptions, as Thomas Trotter brought out in a typically attentive and insightful performance. Thus the opening ‘Subtilité des Corps Glorieux’ unfolds as an unbroken line of melody inflected by plainsong and Greek rhythms, before ‘Les Eaux de la Grâce’ opens out the texture with its superimposing of melodic and rhythmic elements in music both playful and ethereal, then ‘L’Ange aux Parfumes’ draws on a Hindu raga as well as associated rhythms in a technical synthesis which is highly subtle in its virtuosity.

So far the work has been understated, even remote, in its profile and Trotter was mindful to avoid any hint of overstatement. With the centrepiece of the cycle, ‘Combat de la Mort et de la Vie’, the conceptual and musical crux is reached – one which Messiaen duly acknowledges with one of his most intense studies in expressive polarity: the thunderous opening section, where the organ’s resources are powerfully unleashed for the first and only time, is followed by one of mesmeric serenity as the Theme of Death is vanquished by that of Life in music whose gaze is fixed unflinchingly on eternity.

An emotional follow-through such as Trotter rendered with undeniable assurance, though he could not quite avoid making the three movements that follow sound anti-climactic. Thus the toccata-like agility of ‘Force et Agilité des Corps Glorieux’, as well as the jazzy syncopation of ‘Joie et Clarté des Corps Glorieux’, were vividly conveyed yet seemed overly lightweight in fulfilment of their purpose. Perhaps they would have felt less so had the final ‘Le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité’ unfolded with even greater stillness – for all that the skill with which Trotter fused its melodic layers was never in doubt.

Taken overall, however, this was a fine performance of an engrossing masterpiece – and one which was surprisingly well complemented by that of Duruflé’s Suite (1933). The largest organ work by this famously tardy composer, the arch-like accumulation of intensity in ‘Prélude’ is pointedly offset by the wistful elegance of ‘Sicilienne’ before the bristling virtuosity of ‘Toccata’ makes for an uninhibited conclusion. Duruflé apparently came to disown this latter but, heard as the culmination of Trotter’s superb performance on this wonderful instrument, he would surely have paused to reconsider.

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