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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
La Nativité du Seigneur (1935)
Richard Gowers (organ)
rec. 2017, Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge

I believe this is the second disc of organ music issued on the King’s College label. The previous one, which I’ve not heard, was a mixed recital by Stephen Cleobury and it was the first solo recording of the organ since its restoration by Harrison & Harrison in 2017 (review). This latest release is particularly interesting as it features a young organist at the outset of what, on this evidence, is likely to be a notable career. Richard Gowers made this recording right at the end of his three-year spell (2014-17) as Organ Scholar at King’s. Though we have heard Gowers and several of his Organ Scholar predecessors on earlier releases from this label, they have been acting as accompanists to the choir. It’s a significant compliment to Gowers that Stephen Cleobury should have invited him to make this recording.

Gowers justifies the confidence placed in him by delivering a splendid performance which I enjoyed greatly. I admired the sensitivity of his playing on countless occasions and elsewhere in this great set of pieces all the thrilling moments registered to maximum effect. Of course, the King’s organ is essentially an English romantic instrument but I don’t think that’s a bar to performing French repertoire on it. As Gowers justly observes in a booklet note, many of the great Parisian organs and those in provincial French cathedrals have had “tonal alterations with neoclassical influences [so] that very few remain in their original state.” Gowers seems to me to be both judicious and imaginative in his registrations so the King's organ is most successfully harnessed to Messiaen’s music.

Gowers caught my attention early on with the quality and imagination of his playing. He conveys very well the gentle ecstasy at the start of ‘La Vierge et l’enfant’. Then, at 3:01, the melody based on the old ‘Puer natus’ chant trips along joyfully until that episode gives way to a passage of soft, rapt contemplation. This account of La Nativité is off to a promising start and Gowers has displayed impressive credentials. In the opening pages of ‘Les bergers’ the sounds that Gowers conjures from the organ are strongly suggestive of flashes of starlight in a dark, clear night sky. At 3:18 the sound of the shepherds’ rustic pipes is delightfully voiced. In ‘Desseins éternels’ the ear is ravished by the subdued colours that Gowers achieves in this gentle, slow meditation. Here I loved the atmospheric sound of the soft pedal notes.

I suspect Gowers’ performance of ‘Le Verbe’ may be controversial. In the opening paragraphs the imposing, dramatic pedal figure that represents The Word of God is delivered superbly. Here Gowers exploits the tonal range of the organ to thrilling effect. There follows (3:46) a huge contrast as Messiaen embarks on an extended section of slow contemplative music. I really liked the way Gowers voices this theme using the organ’s reed resources. He’s daringly expansive in this section and the movement as a whole lasts for 16:20. That’s longer than any other performance I’ve encountered. Just for comparison, Simon Preston’s 1965 recording made in Westminster Abbey plays for 10:29; Marie-Claire Alain’s 1988 Lucerne recording takes 10:06. The timing for Jennifer Bate’s 1980 recording made in Beauvais Cathedral takes a bit of sorting out because there’s a tracking error on my copy of the original Unicorn-Kanchana disc, which may have been corrected in subsequent issues – it’s now available from Regis (review). However, I calculate that her performance of ‘Le Verbe’ plays not for 9:34 as shown on the jewel case but for 12:58. Closest to Gowers’ timing is the composer himself: his 1956 recording takes 13:37. Gowers’ pacing of this long second section may be too slow for some. I can only say that I was convinced by his concentrated and superbly controlled playing and whatever the watch may say his performance doesn’t seem excessively slow.

It’s worth saying something about Messiaen’s own recording. This is included in a boxed set entitled ‘Messiaen par lui-même’, which I was fortunate enough to find in a record store in the USA many years ago. The four-disc set contains recordings that he made for EMI France in June and July 1956. It includes all his organ pieces up to and including Livre d’orgue (1951). The set is doubly authentic in that not only do we have the composer’s own interpretations of these works but in addition he made the recordings on the Cavaillé-Coll organ of Sainte-Trinité, Paris, the very instrument for which these pieces were conceived. The sound has its limitations and the organ itself sounds somewhat wheezy and imperfectly tuned but these are still documents of absorbing interest and great value. CD copies may now be hard to find but the recordings are available as downloads from Amazon and, quite possibly, elsewhere too.

Returning to Gowers, after ‘Le Verbe’ comes the fifth movement, ‘Les enfants de Dieu’ This opens with a long crescendo to what annotator Jeremy Thurlow aptly describes as “a glorious sunburst of sonority”. Gowers conjures a tremendously powerful sound from the King’s instrument at this point (tr 5, 0:49) and then his account of the meditative remainder of the movement is just as ear-catching. In the next movement, ‘’Les anges’, Messiaen’s dazzling depiction of the angels disporting themselves and cavorting around in the heavens is expertly brought to life by Gowers.

‘Jésus accepte la souffrance’ is a remarkable piece. The music is dramatic and darkly imposing with some fearsome deep pedal passages. Gowers produces a terrific pedal sound hereabouts. I wonder what stop(s) he uses to effect this; perhaps the Ophicleide 16’ stop or, quite possibly, the Double Ophicleide 32’. Organ aficionados may be irritated that the booklet doesn’t include a specification of the organ. This is available online but that’s not quite the same. Messiaen himself achieves a formidable if elderly sound from Sainte-Trinité’s Cavaillé-Coll organ. The specification in the EMI booklet records a 32’ Soubasse stop in the pedal division; I bet Messiaen used that. Jennifer Bate also presents an arresting vision on the 1979 Danion-Gonzalez organ in Beauvais Cathedral and the vast space and resonance of that building adds a frisson. For my taste, Simon Preston, more closely recorded in Westminster Abbey, is too soft-hued in his registrations and the volume at which the pedals sound is too quiet to be imposing.

Can a showpiece be profound? Yes, if we’re talking abut ‘Dieu parmi nous’, the last piece in the cycle. All four of our organists give memorable accounts, especially in the culminating toccata. Bate fills the vast space of Beauvais Cathedral with Messiaen’s jubilant music while Preston’s playing is marvellously athletic and clearly recorded. Messiaen himself demands to be heard. His organ – and recording – may be the most venerable but it’s terrific to hear his music performed by his own hands and feet while the sound of the organ itself takes us back to the piece’s conception. And what of Gowers? The pedal sound in the opening is thrilling and though the calmer stretches of music are expertly done it’s the episodes of jubilation and power that particularly impress. The exultant toccata (from 5:37) sweeps all before it in an exhilarating exhibition of organ virtuosity. Those long-held final chords are terrifically exciting as the literally awesome descending pedal figure at last achieves a harmonic resolution which echoes round the King’s College Chapel for several seconds.

Richard Gowers’ account of La Nativité du Seigneur is a conspicuous achievement. In my comparisons I’ve pitted him against two renowned virtuosi and against the composer himself. That’s formidable company but at no time did I feel that this young organist was second best. He displays not only great virtuosity but also considerable sensitivity and an evident understanding of and empathy with Messiaen’s visionary music. The cause of his performance is assisted in no small measure by the terrific sound engineered by Benjamin Sheen. The organ is presented in great detail yet the sound isn’t too close so we get a fine sense of the ‘big picture’ too. Though only presented as a “vanilla” CD I think this is a tremendous recording which does the music full justice. Apart from the regrettable lack of an organ specification the documentation is otherwise excellent with perceptive essays by Jeremy Thurlow and by Richard Gowers himself.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month)


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