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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-92)
La Nativité du Seigneur (1935) [62:55]
Le Banquet Céleste (1928) [6:55]
Apparition de l’Église Éternelle (1932) [10:00]
Jennifer Bate (organs of Beauvais Cathedral and Sainte Trinité)
rec. St Pierre de Beauvais Cathedral, August 1980 (Nativité and Apparition) and Sainte Trinité, Paris, no date – 1987?) (Banquet).  DDD.
REGIS RRC1086 [71:50]

 

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As the Messiaen centenary year draws to a close and with the approach of Christmas, it seemed to me that a reminder of Jennifer Bate’s excellent performance of La Nativité would not come amiss.  Originally recorded for Unicorn Kanchana, it’s now available singly, as above, or in a 6-CD box set, RRC6001.  The same recording is also available as a download from Chandos’s theclassicalshop.net but, as it omits Apparition and costs £7.99 – considerably more than the usual price of the Regis CD – I recommend staying with the physical disc on this occasion.  If you’re looking to download, I recommend Gillian Weir’s equally fine offering of the three works on Priory PRCD921, which may be had from theclassicalshop.net as a 320k mp3 for £4.99.

Peter Quantrill reviewed Jennifer Bate’s complete set alongside Olivier Latry’s more recent DG recordings in 2002 and, though he awarded Latry the accolade by a short head in la Nativité and in general, he nevertheless thought that purchasers of Bate’s performances would ‘gain many hours of pleasure and unfailingly sensitive playing’, a sentiment with which I gladly concur.

Nativité consists of nine sections, each depicting an aspect of the Christmas message.  As usual with Messiaen, one has to be prepared to look underneath the surface of the familiar to discover deeper doctrinal implications.  Sections such as La Vierge et l’Enfant (Virgin and Child, track 1), Les Bergers (Shepherds, tr.2), Les Anges (Angels, tr.6) and Les Mages (the Magi or Wise Men, tr.8) are self-explanatory and evoke familiar Christmas card scenes, but other sections explore God’s eternal plans (Desseins éternels, tr.3), St John’s description of Jesus as the Logos or Word (Le Verbe , tr.4) and of the hearers of the Word as the Children of God (Les Enfants de Dieu, tr.5), the acceptance of suffering implied in the Nativity (Jésus accepte la souffrance, tr.7 – some real growling from the organ here, as if in sympathy) and the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy of Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us (Dieu parmi nous, tr.9).

This is certainly not seasonal background music but it is deeply rewarding and satisfying if heard in the right spirit – by which I don’t mean that the listener has to subscribe to Messiaen’s blend of mystic Catholicism to appreciate it.  Quiet contemplation will do fine – those seeking an adjunct to meditation will find it excellent.  When trying to meditate, I find myself either too full of thought or inclined to nod off – Messiaen’s organ music in general and la Nativité in particular are excellent antidotes.  Some of his orchestral music can be a little tough going – one can often see where his more avant-garde pupil Boulez was coming from – but la Nativité is approachable without ever being facile.

Messaien himself described Jennifer Bate’s recording of this work as ‘vraiment parfait’, and I’m certainly not going to contradict the master.  The other works are equally well performed – I refer you to PQ’s review for detailed comparisons.

The organs employed, at Beauvais and Sainte Trinité, are excellent instruments for the purpose and the recording – originally UHJ ambisonic – very good throughout.  I wasn’t troubled by the Beauvais reverberation as much as PQ was, though it is noticeable.

With an attractive cover, first-class documentation – much fuller than one would expect from a CD in the lowest price category, including Messiaen’s own descriptions of each of the sections of la Nativité – and 72 minutes of excellence. A ridiculously inexpensive CD.
 
Brian Wilson
 



 


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