Friday, 31 December 2010

Olivier Messiaen plays Olivier Messiaen part 1

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

Olivier Messiaen hardly needs any introduction at all. He was one of the most influential composers of the 20th century and organist at Trinité in Paris for 61 years! Here is a little excerpt from Wikipedia anyway:

“Olivier Messiaen; December 10, 1908 – April 27, 1992) was a French composer, organist and ornithologist, widely regarded as one of the major composers of the 20th century. His music is rhythmically complex (he was interested in rhythms from ancient Greek and from Hindu sources); harmonically and melodically it is based on modes of limited transposition, which he abstracted from his early compositions and improvisations. Many of his compositions depict what he termed "the marvellous aspects of the faith", and drew on his deeply held Roman Catholicism. He said he perceived colours when he heard certain musical chords, particularly those built from his modes (a phenomenon known as synaesthesia); combinations of these colours, he said, were important in his compositional process.
Messiaen entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 11 and was taught by Paul Dukas, Maurice Emmanuel, Charles-Marie Widor and Marcel Dupré, among others. He was appointed organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris in 1931, a post held until his death. He taught at the Schola Cantorum during the 1930s where one of his students was Georges Savaria. On the fall of France in 1940, Messiaen was made a prisoner of war, during which time he composed his Quatuor pour la fin du temps ("Quartet for the end of time") for the four available instruments—piano, violin, cello and clarinet. The piece was first performed by Messiaen and fellow prisoners for an audience of inmates and prison guards. He was appointed professor of harmony soon after his release in 1941, and professor of composition in 1966 at the Paris Conservatoire, positions he held until his retirement in 1978. His many distinguished pupils included Pierre Boulez and Yvonne Loriod, who became his second wife.”
(Source: Wikipedia)

These recordings are of course mandatory if one wishes to play and interpret the music of Messiaen. They were recorded in La Trinité in June and July 1956, and are in many ways electrifying, but they are not without flaws. I’ll here draw attention to a very detailed article on the subject by Timothy Tikker from 2008, originally posted in The American Organist:
"Granted, the 1956 recordings are not without their flaws. The sound is monophonie (even though stereo was available then), and the fidelity merely adequate - certainly no match for the extraordinary engineering that Mercury Living Presence recordings had already achieved at that time. Also, the organ is in a poor state of repair: sometimes painfully out of tune (the coupled-flutes solo in Diptyque becomes excruciating, as can most registrations with mutations or mixtures) with some poor regulation (the 16' Basson solo low C doubles down something fierce), dead notes (treble D disappears from the Tierce in the monophony of "Offertoire" from Messe de la Pentecôte, p. 4), and sometimes inadequate wind (e.g., the sagging final chord of "Dieu parmi nous"; it figures that if seven stops and a pneumatic lever were added to an organ without increasing its wind capacity, there could be trouble!).”

I really encourage you to read this article and Tikker is of curse right. There are some serious flaws in the recordings. The organ is some places hopelessly out of tune and the fidelity of the sound taken in account recordings took place in 1956 is simply too Low Fi. One story goes, that when Messiaen was asked whether he wanted the organ tuned for the recordings, he replied, “Why, no? It’s only been 15 years since it was tuned the last time”.

Messiaen's performances differ quite a lot from modern performances. They are very pragmatic in the terms of tempo, rhythms and even registrations (even though he plays the works at the exact instrument for which they were composed!).
Some critics say that Messiaen wasn’t really an organist and therefore his rendering of his organ music cannot be trusted as his original intentions. Some critics say that they lack on the technical side simply that Messiaen wasn’t technically up for the job playing his organ music. I think both arguments are quite simply wrong. It’s clear that Messiaen plays his works with brilliance, deep understanding, and he is all the way through technically in total command. When he chooses to go alternative ways compared to the text, it’s because he want’s to do it that way. I don’t like to hail any recording as the definitive recording, but these recordings are a fascinating view into the musicianship and aesthetic of Olivier Messiaen.

Timothy Tikker concludes his article:

“After listening to these recordings for over 30 years, I still find them worthy of deep and careful study. By no means is this to say that one should slavishly imitate the composer's performances. In fact, just as when teaching composition he encouraged each student to find his or her own voice as a composer, Messiaen encouraged performers to develop their own interpretations of his music.40 Rather, Messiaen's recordings can help us to fathom the real spirit of his organ music, which spirit can then "incarnate" in each interpreter in richly varied and individualized ways. In that spirit, I strongly recommend these recordings to all who would study and perform Messiaen's music. “

Some technical details - It’s clear that the music was recorded on magnetic tape; there are some rough cuts here and there, cuts which only were possible with magnetic tape. The sound quality is, as mentioned, very poor compared to other organ recordings produced in the mid 1950s. Lastly but not least perhaps the only thing not entirely up for the job was perhaps the organ, which sounds like it’s in much disrepair. These three things taken into account and the fact that if Olivier Messiaen, as the towering personality he was, also among his contemporaries, had wanted it otherwise, he could most definitely had had it, show him as a very free and pragmatic musician. It’s perhaps a view musicians could incorporate more into the interpretations of his music today?

Thanks to Anders Riber for the transfers of the originals LPs. I’ll be posting the other recordings from 1956 and they are transferred, so stay tuned.

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Monday, 6 December 2010

The Complete Charles Tournemire - remastered by Charles Lever

I’ve been rereleasing some recordings before, but I’ve never rereleased a whole set of recordings before. The reason why I’m rereleasing the Complete Charles Tournemire is because the present transfer is simply the best restoration of I’ve ever heard. The original 78s are from the collection of Michael Gartz, who has been a great supporter of this site and is remastered by Charles Lever.

When you remaster old recordings, you are always faced with problems concerning how much noise you are going to remove and how much equalization you are going to make. When you remove noise, you always remove a little bit of the music as well. So when you restore old recording, you are in fact interpretating the music as well; you can alter the actual the timbre of the instrument and you can “color” nuances as it fits you – in other words it is basically up to the aesthetics of the audio technician how the music is going to sound!

I’ve heard many(!) transfers of old recordings, some are completely free of surface noise and sound hollow and unnatural, and some are hardly remastered at all with too much surface noise so all the details are lost. The best remasterings, in my opinion, are done with a clear musical aesthetic in mind keeping as much surface noise and having a natural sound of the instrument and surroundings, bringing the music as much up front as possible.

The present remasterings have it all! Michael Gartz’s mint condition originals and Charles Lever’s subtle sense of details have provided the most excellent remastering, I’ve ever heard - not just organ recordings but in general. The clarity is simply amazing, and we can now hear details, as we were seated on the organ loft just beside Charles Tournemire back in 1930 and 1931. If Duruflé had been able to hear these remastering, the legendary transcriptions would have been much different.

So sit back and these transfers take you back to Paris in the 1930.

Big thanks to Michael Gartz for sharing these recording with us and letting me use them on IHORC, but as much thanks to Charles Lever for his world class remastering.

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