LANGLAIS: Suite Medievale / Cinq Meditations sur l'Apocalypse (Bruno Mathieu/ Pierre-Louis Carsin) (Naxos: 8.553190)
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Jean Langlais (1970-1991)
Langlais' music is steeped in Gregorian chant, which he regarded as his personal domain. Was it also his personal folklore? One might be tempted to think so, since he did not hesitate to introduce a reminiscence of plainsong into his American Suite. However, while his early church music was programme music, he later on preferred to group his works into Masses. The Suite Médiévale and the first five pieces of the Hommage à Frescobaldi are entitled (or subtitled) Prélude, Offertoire, Elévation and Communion, and his Acclamations and Fantaisie provide excellent postludes, as do Te Deum pour une solennité and Incantation pour l'office de la Vigile pascale.
The Suite Médiévale is a low Mass composed in 1947. It combines all the Gregorian themes of the Roman Catholic Mass into a whole which is never far removed from the polyphony of Guillaume de Machaut' s Messe de Notre Dame (1365). After the opening mood of imploration comes the adoration of the Host leading up to the jubilation in honour of Christ Victorious: Christus vincit.
Father Frédéric Noël
In his sumptuous Prélude, Langlais discreetly announces the Asperges. At the Elevation, he hints at the Adoro te devote, and this allusion is more effective than any exhortation could be. At the Communion, he meditates on the Holy Thursday antiphon Ubi caritas linked with the Jesu dulcis memoria. Finally, he dismisses the congregation to the sound of the great canticle Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat. By contrast, his Tiento d'offertoire uses the Kyrie, which has no place at this part of the service. Though it is not the main theme, the fact that it is heard on its own brings it into the foreground. The imitative theme on the manuals is just as important and much more decorative than the liturgical theme. It is also much more appropriate to the celebrationof a feast - necessarily a solemn one since the Kyrie used is the Fons bonitatis.
Father P. Giraud
Cinq Méditations sur l' Apocalypse
Compared with Messiaen's complex style, Langlais' is both simple and assertive. Consequently, the task of commenting on the Cinq Méditations sur l' Apocalypse would appear to be a relatively straightforward one.
This is not the case, however, for as Langlais himself wrote: \The complexity of my Apocalypse is entirely due to the fact that it was conceived over a period of more than thirty years and implemented using the skills I had accumulated in the course of a lifetime." This probably accounts for the dismay of the audience at the first performance, which was given by the composer himself at the organ of Notre-Dame de Paris on 28th April 1974. The listeners were surprised by the very esoteric nature of the piece, quite different from Langlais's usual work, in particular his Suite baroque composed at practically the same time (Spring 1973). Incidentally, Cinq Méditations sur l'Apocalypse is one of the composer's few uncommissioned pieces, and this detail is significant, since the absence of imposed limits and subject matter allowed Langlais to give a free rein to the music which dwelt in him. The point of departure for the new work was the heart attack which almost killed him in January 1973. On his recovery , he decided to write a score about death and spent his long convalescence reading The Revelation of St John the Divine - not once, but tens of times, in an attempt to grasp the work's hidden message.
Why five Méditations and not nine, for instance, which was the figure that Messiaen used? (Nine is the sacred three times three.) In the first place, because Langlais' work is much shorter than Messiaen's: forty-five minutes of music as against eighty minutes. Another reason is that Langlais, who was essentially instinctive, seems to have preferred the poetic element in the Apocalypse to its theological implication, and this led him to be less inclined than Messiaen to long abstract developments.
A further difference between Messiaen and Langlais is that the latter gave each of his Meditations a title:
Celui qui ades oreilles, qu'il écoute (He that has ears, let him hear)
Il était, Il est et Il vient (He is, He was and He is to come)
Visions prophetiques (Prophetic visions)
Oh oui, viens, Seigneur Jésus (Even so, come, Lord Jesus)
La cinquiéme trompette (The fifth trumpet)
These quotations all come from The Revelation of St John the Divine.
It would seem that Langlais' intention was not to reproduce or even to summarise St John's long final epistle, but rather to give expression to a small number of powerful visions or notions which he, as a Christian poet-musician, experienced after repeated re-readings of this monument of the New Testament.
The best way to approach Messlaen's Neuf Méditiations is to study the score as a whole, in line with the composer's own view that the work forms an indivisible whole. However, Langlais' Cinq Méditations are best approached one after the other, in order to bring out their contrasts and the successive tableaux which they compose.
We need to remernber that the Book of Revelations concludes the New Testament. It is a summary of Christ's revelations to St John concerning "things which must shortly come to pass". From the twenty-two chapters of this all-important, esoteric, fantastic book, Langlais selected a number of phrases and images which he set to music.
I. CeIui qui ades oreilles, qu'il écoute (He that hath ears, let him hear)
The title comes from Revelations 2, 7 (He that hath ears, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches), where it stands as a kind of preface to St John's description of the Apocalypse, but it also concludes each of Christ's injunctions to the seven churches as a warning that whoever remains deaf to the Holy Ghost will be punished by the death of the spirit.
Langlais grasped the full importance of the phrase. His score looks forward to the complexity of St John's revelation in the form of a very tight four-part fugue: bass, tenor, alto and treble subjects enter successively a bar apart, immediately followed by their answers in a masterly series of stretti signifying that the Apocalypse has a double, triple or quadruple meaning. To symbolize the seven churches which St John has been instructed to address (What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergarnos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea Revelations 1,11), Langlais superimposes on the fugue - scored in Toumernire's favourite combination of Fonds 8, Gambe, Voix Céleste, Voix Humaine and Trémolo on the Récit - the short theme of the Gregorian fourth mode played seven times over in slightly different rhythms on a soft pedal-board Clairon 4.
Like Messiaen, Langlais seems anxious to preserve the theological truth of his text. Both alert their listeners in advance to the nature of the code used to portray theological abstractions: language communicable in Messiaen, the symbolism of the seven churches in Langlais.
II. Il était, Il est et