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
“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