Jeanne Demessieux: The Decca Legacy – Eloquence 

by | May 5, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Jeanne Demessieux: The Decca Legacy – Eloquence (8 CDs, Tracklisting below) (2/20/21) (TT: 9:4:26) *****:

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-Levy 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!

Portrait Jeanne Demessieux

Jeanne Demessieux

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.” Her rendition of Jean Berveilleur’s shimmering and jazzy Mouvement has all the exuberant flair we came to know from Virgil Fox. The succeeding Toccata by Widor luxuriates in deft lightness of touch, the kind of dexterous confidence we associate with the likes of Dinu Lipatti. Early in Demessieux’s recording career, we hear the distinct influence of Madame Dupré and its heavy sensuality; but by the mid-1960s, Demessieux has long since shed old habits for a style termed legato absolut. Always, even from the earliest recordings, say of Bach, her vigor and fluid digital mechanism has the complement of a fearless dramatic sense, in which her cadences ring with right tempo and concomitant power. The Toccata and Fugue in D minor from Victoria Hall, Geneva simply shatters – with a combination of strength and guided delicacy—our complacency with an old favorite. For those who wish to savor her fleet pedal technique, the wonderful Gigue Fugue in G Major by Bach and Buxtehude Fugue in C Major should suffice. 

Certainly, one of the multifarious joys of this retrospective lies in the opportunity to hear Demessieux perform on the important instruments in her career, such as the organ at La Madeleine in Paris. Eminent among these documents, Liszt’s massive Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H from 1959 stands high, as does her all-Franck disc from 1959 that won the 1960 Grand Prix du Disque. Her rendition of Franck’s Prelude, Fugue et Variation projects a firm but transparent line and supple motion that have marvelous focus. Demessieux’s version of Franck’s Prière, Op. 20 must be heard in the spirit in which Marcel Dupré declared his admiration to her in June 1944: “The first time I had the impression you would be my successor was when you played me Franck’s Prière during the organ class.” She plays Dupré’s transcription of Bach’s Sinfonia from Cantata No. 29 – better known as the Praeludium from Violin Partita No. 3 in E – with voluptuous abandon. Demessieux and her teacher split the transcription of Mozart’s darkly poignant Adagio and Fugue in C minor, she the Adagio, Dupré his volatile and dissonant account of the Fugue. Recall, this piece long provided Tchaikovsky with his notion of what counterpoint should be. For me, the most potent moment comes with Demessieux’s realization of Bach’s throbbing Chorale Prelude, “Erbarm’ dich mein, O Herre Gott,” BWV 721, in which the various voices of the organ seem to congeal into a plastic vision of the infinite. 

Assorted delights and rarities abound, such Demessieux’s collaboration with Belgian soprano Suzanne Danco in 1952 in two arias from the Anna Magdlena Bach Little Notebook and one aria from the Schmelli Songbook. The touching aria from Bach’s immediate predecessor in the German tradition, Heinrich Schuetz, “Eile mich, Gott, zu erreten,” casts an ardent sense of devotion. We have her homage to her predecessor at the Madeleine, Édouard Mignan’s knotty Toccata médiévale; Mignan had served as Organiste-titulaire at the Madeleine until 1962. When he resigned, the news came to Demessieux that she would assume the post caused her to burst into tears. For pure technical acumen and refinement of voice parts, each of the works of Widor and Messaien provide convincing evidence of Demessieux’s sterling mastery of technique in complex textures. 

Finally, at the risk of having omitted someone’s preferred music, I turn to the two pieces by Demessieux herself: her Te Deum, Op. 11, as performed at La Maedeleine in July 1958, and her Improvisation on a Theme submitted by Adrian Beaumont, as performed at the organ of Colston Hall, Bristol 1957. Her ardently personal vision of Deity in the Te Deum expresses itself in vast periods, much like Bruckner, cross-fertilized by thick, Franck-based, dissonant chromatic harmony. The work had been inspired by Demessieux’s playing the organ at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City. The Improvisation, performed 7 September 1967, comes to us at a time when 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. The arduous scales and step-wise motion in the piece testify to a cruel vision of artistic experience, which as commentator D’Arcy Trinkwon notes, “seems to reflect her cynicism in its tortured weavings, as well as the way it collapses down to a dark conclusion.” Whom the gods love, they kill.

—Gary Lemco

Jeanne Demessieux: The Decca Legacy

BACH: Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565; Prelude and Fugue in D Major, BWV 532; Adagio, Toccata and Fugue in C Major, BWV 564; Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543; Toccata and Fugue in F Major, BWV 540; Fantasia in G Major, BWV 572; Sinfonia from Cantata No. 29 (trans. Dupre); Fugue in G Major “Jig,” BWV 577; Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542; Concerto in A minor (after Vivaldi), BWV 593; 8 Chorale Preludes; 3 Arias 
BERVEILLER: Mouvement; 
BUXTEHUDE: Fugue in C Major; 
CLARKE: Trumpet Tune; 
DEMESSIEUX: Te Deum, Op. 11; Improvisations on a Theme submitted by Adrian Beaumont; 
FRANCK: Trois Pièces: Cantabile; Six Pièces: Pastorale; Trois Pièces: Fantasie; Trois Chorals; Fantasie, Op. 16; Grand pièce symphonique, Op. 17; Prelude, Fugue et Variation, Op. 18; Pastorale, Op. 19; Prière, Op. 20; Final, Op. 21; 
HANDEL: Organ Concerto in G minor, Op. 4, No. 1; Organ Concerto in B-flat Major, Op. 4, No. 2; 
LISZT: Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H; Fantasia and Fugue on “Ad nos, as salutarem undam,”; 
MENDELSSOHN: Sonata in A Major, Op. 65, No. 3: Maestoso; 
MESSIAEN: La Nativité du Seigneur: Les Anges; L’Ascension: III Transports de joie d’une âme devant la gloire du Christ qui est la sienne; 
MIGNAN: Toccata médiévale; 
MOZART: Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546 (trans. Demessieux and Dupre); Fantasia in F minor, K. 608; 
SCHUETZ: Eile mich, Gott, zu erretten, SWV 282; 
WIDOR: Symphonie No. 5, Op. 42, No. 1: Toccata; Symphonie gothique, Op. 70; Symphonie No. 6, Op. 42, No. 2: Allegro – Jeanne Demessieux, organ/Suzanne Danco, soprano/ L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/ Ernest Ansermet – Eloquence 484 1424 (8 CDs) (2/20/21) (TT: 9:4:26)

For more information on this release, please visit Eloquence Classics website:

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Demessieux Decca Legacy, Album Cover


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