Gail Archer Plays Messiaen at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, NYC 5/29/08
A riveting, marathon performance. In the console for the better part of two hours with only a brief ten-minute intermission, Barnard College Music Department chair Gail Archer played all eighteen parts of Olivier Messiaen’s complete Livre du Saint Sacrement (Book of the Holy Sacrament) with extraordinary grace and fluidity. Like the composer, Archer is somewhat idiosyncratic, a performer seemingly not particularly fond of and therefore not particularly suited to much of the traditional organ repertoire. In Messiaen, she’s found her holy grail: her performance last night was the last in her own series of Messiaen recitals this year, and without question one of the highlights of the many concerts going on around town this year in honor of the Messiaen centenary. A lesser talent would have fixated on the suite’s many jarring dissonances and the strangeness of its tempos. Instead, Archer treated the audience to a limousine ride through a minefield: fireworks were going off everywhere, but she glided along with an agility that seemed effortless. She even set her tempo to the church’s natural reverb. Much of the piece is fugal, a constant call-and-response between the left and right hand, a device that would quickly get old if not for Messiaen’s extraordinarily imaginative, eerie, often outright macabre melodicism. Archer played at precisely the pace where, when one note would start to fade away, the next would take its place. Whether this was deliberate or strictly intuitive, it was a stroke of genius.
The suite itself is an amazing composition. A work from late in the composer’s life, it features all of Messiaen’s signature characteristics: liturgical themes (Messiaen was a devout Catholic), otherworldly tonalities, unusual time signatures and in this case a defiant resolve to avoid the use of either major or minor chords throughout practically the entire piece. And, of course, birdsong. But here, they are birds of prey, talons outstretched, primed to do battle in the cause of righteousness.
Archer segued seamlessly from one part to the next, making it difficult to tell which was which, although this interpretation made the work admirably whole. For the most part, Messiaen is at his most minimalist here, only rarely utilizing the icy, atmospheric sheets of noise that characterize most of his other great organ works such as the Birth of Our Lord and the legendary Apparition de l’Eglise Eternelle (Dawn of the Eternal Church). When these did occur, Archer literally pulled out the stops, emphasizing all the drama in the Resurrection, or Jesus’ posthumous appearance to Mary Magdalene, or the exhalted, triumphant prayer that concludes the suite. Otherwise, she calmly let Messiaen’s quieter yet often nightmarish passages speak for themselves. What was left of the crowd at the end of the performance (at St. Pat’s, it’s always hard to tell who’s just passing through, and who’s actually here for the concert) rewarded her with three standing ovations. Which also spoke for itself.
If this concert is any indication, Archer’s new cd of Messiaen works should be very much worth seeking out.
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