P1387. JEANNE DEMESSIEUX: Handel, Langlais & Demessieux; w.Bigot Cond. Paris Radio S.O.: 'Organ' Symphony #3 in c (Saint-Saëns); w.Cosmos Cond. ORTF S.O.: Organ Concerto in g (Poulenc). (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-1121. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“Yves Saint Laurent now supplements Demessieux’s all too slender discography with these radio broadcast performances. All but the closing Poulenc Concerto from 1966 are taken from a 1952 concert at the Salle Pleyel.
Unlike the recordings made with Ernest Ansermet, however, which reportedly were accompanied by considerable contention between the organist and conductor, one suspects in this case that the collaboration was far more sympathetic here…with Demessieux as usual interpolating a cadenza of her own devising.
Both Demessieux’s own ‘Poème’ (1949) and Jean Langlais’ Premier Concerto pour orgue ou clavecin et orchestre (1948–49) - the first of three such works by the latter - breathe the same air of mid-20th century modernist eclecticism, blending adventurous dissonances, quirky rhythms, jazz and blues influences, and Neoclassicism into heady brews. So far as I can ascertain, these are the only recordings available of either piece, which gives this set a major cachet….
The second disc features the two organ plus orchestra French repertoire warhorses. Although of course neither work features modern digital sound, that should not be dissuasive here. The recorded sound in both works is surprisingly clear and detailed mono, with the Poulenc being a bit harsh on the treble end. The Saint-Saëns receives a splendid performance, lyrical and flowing, yet with plenty of forward momentum and power at the climaxes; Eugène Bigot’s conducting reminds me very much at points of Paul Paray in the legendary Mercury recording with the Detroit Symphony. As for the Poulenc, it positively oozes character. Former FANFARE colleague William Zagorski wrote regarding it in one review that ‘I have always found its weird combination of French dance-hall stuff, grade B horror movie track, and fervent religiosity irresistible’. I agree, and all those elements are present in spades here. Edgar Cosma provides fervent support for Demessieux’s fleet, agile fingerwork; one would hardly guess that she was struggling against cancer and had only 30 more months to live.
In sum, this is a splendid tribute to one of the great artists of the last century, whose amazing technical and interpretive abilities were far less well documented than they richly deserved. Needless to say, for organ aficionados, this is a ‘must-have’ item, urgently recommended.”
- James A. Altena, FANFARE
“Few musicians have faced a debut more intense than did the organist Jeanne Demessieux. For years before her first concert — one of six she gave at the Salle Pleyel in Paris early in 1946 - her teacher Marcel Dupré had stoked rumors of her outlandish talent. ‘Jeanne Demessieux is the greatest organist of all generations’, Dupré, then practically the god of the French organ world, had declared in 1944. She would be, he predicted, ‘one of the greatest glories of France’.
There was tremendous pressure, then, on this shy, workaholic, perfectionist prodigy, who had lived under what Dupré said was his ‘artistic protection’ since 1936 - winning first prize in his class at the Paris Conservatory in 1941 and remaining his student and assistant after that. Pressure, too, from the imposing program of the first of her ‘six historic recitals’, as the publicity announced them: the Bach c minor Passacaglia; a Franck chorale; a Dupré prelude and fugue; the premiere of her own, impossibly challenging Six Études; and a symphony in four movements - one she improvised.
Yet Demessieux, who was born in Montpellier, France, in 1921, exceeded expectations. Dupré waxed ‘of a phenomenon equal to the youth of Bach or Mozart’. Maurice Duruflé, then finishing his REQUIEM, declared that ‘next to Jeanne Demessieux, the rest of us play the pedals like elephants’. LE FIGARO wrote that she was a fairy tale that could be believed in, for she had been ‘irresistible absolute perfection’.
Demessieux became the first female organist to sign a record deal, setting down a fleet run through Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor for Decca in 1947, and paving the way for women such as Marie-Claire Alain and Gillian Weir. Tours began, taking her around Europe and on to the United States, where the critic Virgil Thomson, praising her ‘taste, intelligence and technical skill of the highest order’ in 1953, would think of ‘masters’ like Charles-Marie Widor, Louis Vierne and Olivier Messiaen as the only possible equals of this ‘extraordinary musician and virtuoso’. Demessieux seemed destined to take a top liturgical position, at Dupré’s St.-Sulpice or even at Notre-Dame. But shortly after her debut, Dupré, who appears to have been fed unfounded rumors that Demessieux had been disloyal, cut off contact with his pupil and resolved to sabotage her career. Instead, Demessieux stayed with her family’s parish church, where she had been organist since she was 12, until she succeeded Camille Saint-Saëns and Gabriel Fauré as titulaire, or chief organist, at the church of the Madeleine in 1962. She prospered at a Cavaillé-Coll instrument with which she had a rare bond, having recorded a transcendent Franck cycle on it in 1959.
Although Demessieux was a star in the 1940s and ’50s, when she kept up a punishing concert schedule alongside her liturgical work and her teaching in Liège, Belgium, her status faltered after her death from cancer in 1968, at just 47.
Part of the reason for Demessieux’s ebbing fortunes can be traced to the rise of neoclassical and period performance practices, which made her impulsive, lyrical, heartfelt style - one that brought a singular lightness of touch to a grand symphonic tradition - seem outdated, especially in the Bach and Handel with which she often opened her concerts. Part of the reason, too, was the difficulty of her compositions, some of which were unpublished until recently and were promoted mostly by students like Pierre Labric. While Demessieux sometimes wrote with moving simplicity, as in chorale preludes like ‘Rorate coeli’ and ‘Hosanna filio David’ that speak to the devotional quality of her Catholic faith, many of her pieces have an angst to them, a gnarled bleakness, though they stop far short of atonality. ‘She uses a voice that I don’t think women were often allowed to use in other ways, and she puts it all into her music’, the organist Joy-Leilani Garbutt said in an interview.
Predictably, Demessieux faced sexist stereotypes throughout her career. There were critics who wrote ill of the high heels that were an intrinsic part of her pedal technique, or that she was ‘too young and attractive to be an organist of the first rank’, as THE BOSTON GLOBE put it in 1953. Some churches still barred women from their organ lofts, not least Westminster Abbey, which had to give her special dispensation to perform in 1947. Perhaps most scurrilous was the slur that she was merely the creation of Dupré, not an artist in her own right. But Garbutt, a scholar and a founder of the Boulanger Initiative, which advocates women composers, has found in her research that prejudices came with a twist in this case. Demessieux emerged from a tradition in which women organists could and did shine, though she might well have dazzled brightest of all. ‘She wasn’t the only woman international virtuoso, she wasn’t the only woman composer for the organ, and she wasn’t the only woman professor of organ, or the only woman to hold a major church position’, Garbutt said, mentioning Joséphine Boulay, the earliest woman to win first prize in organ at the Paris Conservatory, in 1888; Renée Nazin, a student of Vierne’s who did three world tours in the 1930s; and Rolande Falcinelli, who succeeded Dupré as professor at the Conservatory in 1955. ‘But I think Demessieux may have been the only woman to do all of those things in her lifetime’, Garbutt said. This was an era when women had greater opportunities to succeed, Garbutt argues, suggesting that they found grudging acceptance when jobs needed filling after so many men had died in the world wars. The spatial configurations of French churches played a role, too, with organists seated high in the gallery, unseen during Mass. While there were Parisian priests who tolerated or even supported women, others banned them, a rule that some artists used their invisibility while performing to flout. Henriette Puig-Roget, for instance, simply submitted her name as Monsieur Roget, cross-dressed, and substituted for Charles Tournemire at Ste.-Clotilde. Even so, the opportunities were fleeting. ‘The invisibility was a privilege or a tool that could be used to create their music’, Garbutt said, ‘but on the flip side it made their work disappear almost as soon as it had been created’. Women have since occupied major organ posts - Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin, for instance, has shared Dupré’s old position at St.-Sulpice with Daniel Roth since 1985 - but equal representation remains a distant ideal.”
- David Allen, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 2 Nov., 2021
“The legendary French organist Jeanne Demessieux (1921-1968) stands apart in her artistry, much as the equally ill-fated Ginette Neveu stands to French violin performance. Renowned for her demonic virtuosity in fingering and pedal technique, Demessieux embraced a decidedly unapologetic, Romantic approach to her chosen repertory, especially intimidating to those who espoused a neo-Classical aesthetic. No less gifted at the piano, she studied with Lazare-Lévy at the Paris Conservatory, who called her ‘a lyre, a harp, a genius. She is the first child that I have found so gifted to such a degree that she sometimes frightens me’. Demessieux proceeded to study with Magda Tagliaferro, where among other accomplishments - mainly in composition - Demessieux mastered Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier' Sonata, the piece with which she auditioned in 1936 for Marcel Dupré, the only teacher who could accommodate her accomplishments. In 1944, already seriously ill and aware he must name a successor, Dupré declared, ‘Jeanne Demessieux is the greatest organist of all generations’. After her long-delayed debut occurred in 1946, the receptions warranted London Decca to offer the first contract ever to a woman organ virtuoso, signed Demessieux in May 1947. Her Clarke ‘Trumpet Tune’ won the Grand Prix du disque in 1949, and the BBC Third Programme decided to broadcast a number of her recitals in 1948.
For some unexplained reason, a rupture had emerged between Demessieux and her former master Marcel Dupré in 1947, never healed. Some ascribe the break to the fierce jealousy within the sequestered world of organ players, especially among men. But no less a possibility exists that a treacherous female contemporary poisoned Dupré’s ear when he returned to Paris in early 1947. Dupré became as malignant in his animosity to Jeanne as he had been magnanimous throughout his long sponsorship. He practiced one principle without deviation: never reconcile, never look back or give anyone a second chance if once he betrays a trust. ‘[Jeanne] was unworthy of me and Madame Dupré. This wound has never healed. I don’t need to say more. You can guess’.
Demessieux sojourned to the United States first in 1953, then again in 1955 and 1958. Critics concurred that her playing was as ‘astonishing as her quiet demeanor at the console’. The recording that first drew my attention, that of the two Handel concertos with Ernest Ansermet from Geneva, 1952, despite their galvanizing musicality, had a rocky history, given the opposing temperaments of the two principals. Ansermet consistently contradicted her choice of tempos, and he insisted she cut her cadenzas. She wrote in her diary: ‘The interpretation of a work must be of logical construction: there cannot be two architects! One of us had to concede, and I decided it would not be me...’ To the chagrin of some American audiences, Demessieux demurred on performing sheer bravura repertory, of which the demure, often arched meditations in sound of Franck remained crucial to her musical persona. The recordings of Franck’s music made at the Madeleine in Paris, 1959 provide glowing testimony to her loyalty to this composer. The one aspect of her playing that never disappointed any audience lay in her art of improvisation, the gift for which she need not defer to anyone, including her master Dupré, who once boasted he could teach anyone of competence in the organ to improvise a five-part fugue within six months!
The years of perpetual travel, touring and concert preparation - eight hours a day at her instrument was her norm - took their toll both physically and emotionally on Demessieux, and she would succumb to cancer on 11 November 1968 after a two-month stay in a hospital. Even in the face of her own mortality, very much like the equally doomed Kathleen Ferrier, Demessieux’s late performances from the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral and Colston Hall, Bristol reveal a jubilant energy that transcends any mere designation of ‘virtuoso intoxication’.
Demessieux confessed to a grand fatigue after laborious years of solitary travel and recollections of a lost childhood, due to her precocious and demanding talent, her own striving for a futile perfection. Whom the gods love, they kill.”
- Gary Lemco, AUDIOPHILE AUDITION, 5 May, 2021