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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
La Nativité du Seigneur (1935)
Tom Winpenny (organ)
rec. 2014, Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, St Albans, UK
NAXOS 8.573332 [61:09]

Faced with a musically curious and empathetic young person, who was seeking a way in to Messiaen’s unique world, what single work would you suggest? The mighty Turangalîla-Symphonie maybe, or the moving Quartet for the End of Time, both much recorded? Essential mid-twentieth century masterpieces both, but perhaps the first is too erotic and the second too harrowing for our juvenile. So should not the organ works be seen as more essential, given the composer and his art was so avowedly religious and he was a parish organist for sixty years? In which case this work in this version might serve your purpose very well as a contribution to that youngster’s enlightenment. If it failed to open the door, leaving him or her to find other ways in, you will have spent but £6 – though you might want to ask for the disc back, since it’s pretty good.

Dan Morgan tells us why it’s good in an earlier review, one that seemed to me to position this version fairly accurately within a variety of other recorded approaches. Certainly his assessment is much more balanced than the Gramophone’s dismissive assertion that “this can be nobody’s idea of good enough”. Interesting though that both reviews draw attention to the same features, a certain reticence, coolness and lack of sharp contrasts; so it depends what you think the essential mood should be. If you feel that at least some of the movements should be passionate, earthy and dramatic, then favourite versions from Bate and Preston have much more of those qualities. Winpenny certainly plays skilfully and idiomatically throughout, and has the measure of the piece overall, but he sees it as mostly a reflective work. The composer too in his 1956 recording from EMI France is in some ways like this Winpenny interpretation – in terms of tempi at least, for Messiaen takes just over the hour for his own piece, while Winpenny adds one minute to that. Bate and Preston are in the 55 to 58 minute region, so we can’t make too much of this. Messiaen was extravagant in his praise of Bate’s recording though, calling it “vraiment parfait”. Then again, he had a habit of regarding recordings of his music as ‘truly perfect’, at least when he was present at the sessions and ready to offer a useful quote to the recording company.

It is perhaps worth reflecting that the subtitle for this nine-movement work, at least in the booklet for Messiaen’s version, is Neuf Méditations, so a meditative quality will be suitable at least for some of the movements. If, as Dan Morgan says, that risks becoming static in Desseins éternels (‘Eternal Purposes’, movement III), then a certain stillness has always been seen as essential to penetrating to the heart of sacred mysteries. Time standing still features in numerous Messiaen movements, even – paradoxically - in this work famous for its rhythmic innovations. The composer himself though, keeps this third movement moving a bit more, resulting in a 5:16 timing against Winpenny’s 5:39, just enough to make an audibly greater sense of flow. Doubtless it is a matter of nuance, and tempi will need to vary with the instrument and the acoustic. In this regard the Naxos recording reveals little – it is quite closely recorded, telling us nothing of the acoustic space this very fine instrument occupies. This is a pity, since the building’s acoustic is a part of the musical make-up in organ recordings, and will affect interpretation as mentioned earlier. The recording is in other respects exemplary, with wide dynamic range and good detail, allowing us to enjoy the characterful treble sounds and the well-extended and very ‘present’ quiet bass sounds. If not a market leader then, sufficiently accomplished to take its place among other versions with something to say about this great cycle. If it doesn’t help our hypothetical neophyte to get into Messiaen, it won’t be Tom Winpenny’s fault.

Roy Westbrook

Previous review: Dan Morgan