Jennifer Bate’s 1980s recordings of Messiaen’s organ works including La Nativité du Seigneur have been a staple of the catalogue since their original release on Unicorn-Kanchana, and given a new budget lease of life on the Regis label. For a time her performances were the standard-bearer for this music and still represent a realistic choice, the CDs recorded on the kind of pungently characterful French organs for which Messiaen composed. La Nativité du Seigneur is his cycle of nine meditations on theological themes around the birth of Christ, both referring to specific elements of the Christmas story, and to other more abstract conceptions.
This is a Channel 4 production, and represents the kind of high class TV you might get very late at night if you are very lucky, but which in fact is rarely seen these days at all. We the Public just can’t cope with high art – it’s a known fact, innit. As ever with organ DVDs however, the producer always has the problem of making an interesting film about an entirely inert instrument, and a player focused on operating it with octopus agility but otherwise in distinctly non-showy mode. In this case we also have a live audience, who are if anything even more inert than the organ itself. The camera pans over a variety of faces, raptly experiencing the Desseins éternels. Having seen them once and admired some late 1980s high-street Norwich fashions this is the kind of shot which doesn’t bear much repeated viewing, though it is fascinating to see how well behaved everyone is – not only are they still and quiet, they have also clearly taken on board the director’s instructions not to look at the camera. You can almost sense the teeth grinding as people restrain themselves from peering down the lens and waving to granddad. Jennifer Bate is in full concert bling – the pictures used from this concert appear to have been used for the backs of those Regis discs I mentioned earlier. It is interesting to see her at work, and to admire that almost superhuman control in action.
Jennifer Bate was Messiaen’s player of choice when he became too elderly to fulfil all his concert engagements, and the two of them worked closely on all of his organ works. Any performance of hers can be taken as pretty much definitive in terms of accuracy to Messiaen’s own intentions, and the musical performance here is without fault in my opinion. Bate’s interpretation is very similar to the Regis disc, so what do we gain with the DVD?
The answer is, truth be told, not a great deal. The main advantage is the greater clarity of the Norwich Cathedral organ and acoustic over that in Beauvais Cathedral, with the trade-off in sheer French character you get from the instrument on the CD recording. As far as the visuals go the DVD is acceptable, if rather dated by today’s expectations. We get a sequence of scenes from nature in Le Verbe for instance, which range from the creation of the solar system to the nitty-gritty of creepy crawlies, some images from which would never have occurred to me while listening to this music. There are also some sequences of paintings and appropriate religious art work, stained glass and the like. All of this serves to give some visual variety and introduce some associative references here and there, but the general ambitions of the production are not vastly high. It certainly looks as if some of the art work has been filmed from dodgy reproductions, and the general impression is one of rather heavy-handed slowness. Messiaen’s music can be timeless and eternal, but it also fizzes with life and energy in places, something to which this production steadfastly refuses to respond. According to the blurb on the cover “this film was enthusiastically endorsed by Messiaen himself” which is nice to know, though I have the impression that he was quite enthusiastic about enthusiastically endorsing most productions involving his work. There are nice title pages for each of the movements and appropriate Psalm texts, and there is nothing really wrong with this 1989 production, but in general you’ll want this for the performance and the piece rather than the visuals.
The same is also true of the presentation for this DVD, which comes with no booklet. What you see is what you get, even without attacking the cellophane. Once again, the DVD makers seem determined to drive us all up the wall by having a bit of the music from the programme as part of the title track - bleugh. The actual disc is marked as having a playing time of 70 minutes while the cover gives the more accurate 60 minute timing. In reality it’s exactly 58 minutes including audience arriving, full programme, final applause, some confusion with flowers and a flamboyant exit. There are no other extras on the disc. As far as the recording goes it is in fact very fine. There is a certain amount of wind noise from the instrument and the odd squeak and bump here and there, but the audience is very well behaved, and the full range of the organ comes through well on good equipment.
If you already have Jennifer Bate on Regis then I would think twice before splashing out on this rather period film. The CD recording wins in terms of sheer atmosphere, even if some of the notes are less than distinct in the dense passages. In these terms La Nativité du Seigneur suffers less than some of Messiaen’s other less restrained organ pieces in Bate’s CD cycle. If however your preferred medium is DVD and you seek a good version of La Nativité du Seigneur then this will fit the bill very well indeed.